2016-06-30
This year we fought evil not only with might, but with good. It seemed like nearly every horror story was matched by a tale of inspiration. Perhaps we fixed on these because we needed them--because the alternative, that the dominant human narrative is tragedy and selfishness, is too depressing to bear.

Every person or group of people on Beliefnet's Most Inspiring list lifted our hearts and sustained us. Choosing a most inspiring person is a bit like choosing the "best" gold medalist at the Olympics. We've had much heated discussion here at Beliefnet--among our users, among our editors, among our columnists and contributors.

We'd like to let you in on these discussions, which forced us to think not just about this extraordinary group of people, but about what truly inspires.

Let's start with the non-9/11 heroes. There were some who argued that we should choose someone not involved directly in the tragedy, to remind us that inspiring acts happen all the time. Mattie Stepanek, the 11-year-old poet confined to a wheelchair with a rare form of muscular dystrophy, almost received the most votes in our Beliefnet poll. Stepanek has been through emotional torture, losing three of his siblings to the same disease that he--and his mother--have. His response--to write moving, hopeful poetry--has been awe-inspiring.

Beliefnet member Hubbellmb put it this way: "Whenever I read Mattie's poems or hear him speak, I feel an utter sense of calm and peace. I have not prayed in years and find myself praying for Mattie."

Mary Kay Ash, the cosmetics entrepreneur who died this year, received many votes and testimonials, several from women who've worked in the organization. "Empowering women with confidence & self-worth has done more for this world than just given women belief in themselves," wrote mksam2.

Ultimately, though, we felt that, in this watershed year for our nation, the stories most likely to have enduring impact came out of the 9/11 tragedy. Many nominated George Bush or Rudy Giuliani ("Rudy picked us up, handed us a tissue and showed us how to put the city back together," wrote Amorphus in a typical post.)

Others cited Thich Nhat Hanh for having the courage to press his message of peace during a time when anger was boiling.

Though their contributions were significant, we felt even more moved by those who risked or sacrificed their lives. Father Mychal Judge, the fire department's chaplain, was a strong candidate for two reasons.

First, he could have been a contender for this award almost any year. Beliefnet member phogan writes:

"Compassionate, a recovering drunk, homosexual (he never hid this, and went to mostly gay A.A. meetings), [he] was ministering to the homeless and AIDS patients when most people literally were debating whether or not to give someone mouth to mouth resuscitation for fear of catching AIDS. Friend to other faiths, he was, actually, everything that a saint is."
The rest of the case for him grows out of the very predictability of his acts--representative of the acts of all the firefighters who arrived at Ground Zero. They "merely" did what they were supposed to do: offer their own lives to save perfect strangers. And save them they did. A recent report by USA Today concluded that the rescue effort was spectacularly successful: 99 percent of those below points at which the planes crashed survived. We all are less likely to take firefighters, emergency personnel, and police for granted now.

But the final choice for us came down to two sets of "everyday" heroes. Not to take anything away from political leaders or those whose profession it is to save lives, but part of what makes someone inspirational is their ability to move us to change. When we look at firefighters, we feel intense gratitude and awe, but we don't become anymore likely to walk into burning buildings or dramatically change our behavior.

However, the actions of the passengers and crew of Flight 93, who all perished in rural Pennsylvania, and World Trade Center heroes Michael Benfante and John Cerqueira, have a different psychological impact. Because they are regular folk, their example seems more replicable and more personally challenging to each of us.

If they could do it, maybe I could do it too. If they did do it, maybe I should do it too.

Benfante and Cerqueira were the two men who carried a handicapped woman in a wheelchair down 68 flights of stairs. Through smoke, water, debris--with screams around them--they slowed down their own exit by bringing this stranger with them. The prudent thing to do was to let someone else do it and to get the hell out as fast as they could. Instead, they did the good thing.

We view them as representing a whole class of people, most of whose names we don't even know--people who were in the buildings and died while trying to help someone else. There was the man who stayed behind on the 27th floor to comfort a handicapped friend, and the elevator mechanic down the street who rushed to the buildings to help. Both died. God only knows how many other stories like that we will never know.

The passengers of Flight 93 had to make a different calculation. In a way, the choice for them--on an intellectual level--might have been easier than for Benfante and Cerqueira. They had a pretty good sense that they were going to die if they didn't do something. So why not try?

But that's on an intellectual level, which fails to recognize the immense emotional gulf they jumped--making the shift in roughly a half hour from sleepy strangers to a spontaneous swat team. They could have easily focused their minds on the chance that the plane would land safely. They'd seen the brutal murder of a crew member and knew that by attacking they'd be running right into armed killers. No one would have thought less of these passengers if they'd spent their remaining minutes praying, writing out last thoughts, calling family, screaming, or crying.

Part of what makes their story so appealing is the teamwork. These were not the superheroes of the 1980s and 1990s--the lone Arnold Schwarzenegger single-handedly smiting the foe. These were the heroes of the World War II movies, the ragtag assemblage of people from all walks of life who become greater than the sum of their parts. There were the flight attendants who boiled the water; the former athletes who probably charged; and all the others we don't know. We doubt it is coincidental that when a man recently tried to detonate an explosive on a flight from Paris to Miami, he was subdued by a swarm of other passengers.

The passengers and crew of Flight 93 acted primarily to save the lives of others, but in the process they also may have protected national symbols.
It's hard to predict how our world would have been changed if the White House or Capitol had been destroyed. The passengers may not have thought of it at the time, but they were accidental freedom fighters.

And they rescued us from a sense of total helplessness. If the terrorists had gone four for four, it would have seemed like we really were incapable of defending ourselves, that American security was a mirage.

These heroes showed we could win--not by turning to the professionals but by turning to each other. We suspect that Flight 93 will become a rallying cry and a model--a new way of thinking about our responsibilities to each other, our community, and our nation. For that historic contribution, we humbly present Beliefnet's Most Inspiring Person award to the passengers and crew of Flight 93.

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