Everyday Greatness

Good morning and welcome to another New Sunday conversation.  

You've probably never heard of Wesley Autrey, but his story is a remarkable example of how our character is revealed through our actions.  On an early January afternoon in 2007, Mr. Autrey, a construction worker, was taking his daughters home on the subway in New York.  

As they waited for the subway to arrive, a man on the platform fell to the ground, convulsing from an epileptic seizure. Mr. Autrey and another bystander helped the young man to his feet. He seemed to be alright, but as the train approached another seizure struck him.   The young man lost control and fell onto the tracks as the incoming train rounded the corner into the station.

Autrey watched in horror. He said later, “The driver hit the horn so I knew from that sound he wasn’t going to make it.” 

And so Wesley Autrey jumped.  He jumped onto the tracks in front of an oncoming train and held the convulsing man's body to the ground as the train passed overhead.  There was only half an inch of clearance for their bodies - it was so close that the train left grease on Autrey’s cap.
  
Once the train stopped, Mr. Autrey called out to his daughters to let them know he was okay. Then came the applause.  

“I had to make a split decision,” he said later, explaining his incredible bravery. “I did what I felt was right.”

Stories like this touch something in us all.  We marvel at this selfless courage and wonder if we have it in us to do the same.  Would we risk our own safety for a stranger? Are we capable of this kind of unfathomable generosity?  

The highest honor for a member of our armed forces is the Medal of Honor.  Created at the beginning of the American Civil War by Abraham Lincoln, the Medal of Honor is given only to those men and women who perform acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty, often at great risk to their own safety and well-being.  This level of courage and character is so deeply revered that it is one of the few instances when a living member of the military is saluted by those of higher rank.

We may never know how we would react in situations where selfless courage is called for, but we need not wait to be tested by a crisis in order to practice being the kind of person we hope to be.  We can live up to the example set by Wesley Autrey and the nearly 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients of the past 150 years.  The opportunity to start being the type of person we admire exists right now, no subway train required.

Like all great achievements - building character happens little by little, over time, like an athlete building skills and muscles so that when she or he is out on the field split-second decisions are made with a natural grace.  When we watch professional sports or the Olympics we see the final lap of a race or the game-winning shot, but champions are forged from hours, days, and years of practice. 

But where do we practice building character?  Where is our gym?  I suggest that we only have to start noticing the world around us to discover that there are abundant opportunities in our daily lives to do the right thing.  

When someone holds the door open for you, do you walk through without a word, or do you offer a thank you and then turn around and hold the door for the next person?  Every time you do the right thing, you build your character muscle.  You remember what you value and why it’s important to be gracious, to be thoughtful, to be aware of those around you.

You might be thinking that following through on what you’ve promised to do -- like making your bed, or meeting a deadline -- is not the same as chasing down an armed purse snatcher or running into a burning building to save a life -- and of course you’re right.  Yet, it is still important to practice being the person you wish to be -- to act as if you already have the character you wish to have.  

Most of our lives are lived in the small, mundane moments, not the big crises and headline events.  That means most of our opportunities to develop character are going to be small, and seemingly insignificant. 

But there are no insignificant moments. We need to recalibrate our perspective. We can’t wait for the big test of character to know we’re worthy. We have to forge ourselves into our better selves through every interaction, decision and attitude.  Through these seemingly small moments of practice, we become capable of selfless acts of courage, because we’ve been preparing all along.


In the words of former Navy Seal, Admiral William McRaven, "If you can't do the little things right, you'll never be able to do the big things right."

And so I ask.  What do you do?

If your child is screaming in the restaurant, do you continue your conversation, inflicting the consequences of your unhappy child on the other patrons, or do you demonstrate your respect for others by stepping outside?

In the public restroom, when you see a paper towel on the floor, do you pick it up even though it wasn't you who made the mess, or do you leave it for someone else to deal with?

What do you do?

When you’re driving and a car cuts you off without signaling, do you speed ahead to return the favor, or do you let it go and use that moment to rise above, and embody your better, more compassionate self?

What do you do?

The world is not your oyster -- it is our oyster.  Life is a shared experience.  We succeed or fail together.  But our collective greatness begins by working on ourselves.

This week, I encourage you to pay attention to the small moments -- the small opportunities that arise to build your character.  The more you pay attention, the more these opportunities will appear.  Tune your attention and notice life at a deeper level.

Try to live up to your best self in every moment, but be patient.  Holding yourself to a higher and higher standard becomes easier, just like adding weights gradually builds muscles.   You don't start at the Olympics, but at the local pool.

Small moments are big opportunities.  

What will you do?


FURTHER READING:

Story of Wesley Autrey

Admiral McRaven Speech (Quote @ 5:46)