I’m not an especially eloquent or elegant writer. Others would undoubtedly do a far better job at communicating these thoughts. Especially as I try to convey a topic that is so personally emotional and still a little raw.
Houston is my hometown.
If you didn’t grow up there, it is difficult to imagine the sheer scale of this month’s catastrophic flooding due to Hurricane Harvey. It wasn’t just parts of Houston that were impacted. Every part of Houston was impacted. Every major highway in and out of town was flooded. In a county larger than some U.S. states, every suburb received nearly 30 inches of rain --- some areas got more than 50.
You’ve certainly seen videos of the heroic civilian men and women who joined first responders in risking their own safety to wade, walk, or boat their way to rescue others. As is often the case in a crisis, the very best of humanity was on display.
Predictably, the local news channels transitioned to 24/7 coverage of the unfolding events. I watched a reporter interview a man who had just carried an elderly woman to safety through chest-deep water. The reporter asked if he was a first responder. “No,” he replied. “I’m just a normal guy. But I couldn’t just sit back and watch this unfold. I had to do something.”
Did you catch that phrase?
In interview after interview, I heard impromptu rescuers use those exact words. Had to. I kept reflecting on that phrase. Perhaps the reason it stood out in my mind is because … it wasn’t true. They DIDN’T HAVE TO.
That is what makes all this so remarkable. No one would have thought less of them if they had evacuated themselves and their immediate families and sought shelter. But they didn’t.
In their minds, they had to. That’s who we are here. That is our CHARACTER.
Thousands of Houstonians disregarded their own personal comfort and went in search of helping others. No waiting for the government to sweep in and solve it. No political, religious, racial, or ideological boundaries. Just people helping their neighbors.
One of my close friends, John Snelson, is a local football coach and K-12 athletic director in one of the hardest hit areas – the small suburb of Dickinson. Impacted himself, Coach Snelson perhaps summed up the collective spirit of the Houston area during those harrowing days:
“As bad as I feel for my situation and about our kids’ situation, it was really cool to see people unite and come together and help each other … I don’t know, maybe this was a wake-up call for us … we need to love our neighbor like we love ourselves. Not love your neighbor if they’re the same color as you. Not love your neighbor if they go to the same church as you. Not love your neighbor if they think the same as you do. Love your neighbor as your own self. It’s just been a big wake-up call, to be honest with you.”
Somehow, in the midst of such tragedy, we were reminded of our common humanity. It wasn’t merely churches, synagogues, and mosques. It was also furniture stores and restaurants and fishermen and nurses and so many others.
We felt like we HAD TO. It’s our CHARACTER.
Character isn’t “one more thing” you do. It is how you do everything. It’s rising to action when the situation demands it. It’s deciding what you aren’t willing to tolerate. It’s that voice in our conscience that compels us to action when we see a need.
One of the things that makes me proud to be affiliated with Character.org is their desire to help schools, families, communities, and the broader society define their common character. Over the past several years --- and perhaps more acutely in the past several months --- our nation and world are being confronted with the rising waters of a deteriorating common understanding of character. Perhaps today, more than ever, we need women and men with an uncompromising commitment to character. People who see a need and wade out against “the current” to make a positive difference.
I was lucky. My home was not flooded during the storm. But my emotions were. Something about this event has inspired me to want to be more positive, caring, and understanding of the people around me. The outpouring of support and aid has been wonderful. Neighboring states and communities have inspired us with their kindness and generosity.
I am a realist. The recovery efforts in Houston are likely going to take several years. But my hope for my hometown – and for myself! – is that the unfiltered demonstration of our character will last much, much longer. Perhaps one day we can all look back on this experience and view it as far more than just a tragedy of nature. Instead --- hopefully --- we will reflect back and be reminded of a time when the character of our city, state, and nation was on full display. A time when we found the best in ourselves and others.
I want to continue living out that spirit.
I just have to.
Dr. Dave Keller is the Director of the Hollingsworth Leadership Excellence Program at Texas A&M University. Prior to his appointment to Texas A&M, Dr. Keller oversaw all cadet character, ethics, and leadership programs at the United States Air Force Academy, and guided professional development efforts at Character.org.