There were any number of overriding reasons for Lenny Skutnik not to dive into the Potomac last Wednesday to save the life of Priscilla Tirado, but the magnificent thing is that none of them seemed to occur to him. Or, if they did, he did not act on them. "If I hadn't done it, she would have died," he said. Nothing could be simpler than that. If he hadn't done it, she would have died.
But of course the issue, as we are in the habit of reminding ourselves, is really much more complicated. Skutnik himself might have died. If he hadn't dived in, someone else --a better swimmer, perhaps--might have. The rescue crew in the helicopter would certainly have tossed her another line and this time she might have managed to hold on to it. Skutnik had responsibilities, a wife and two children. What about them? Is it courageous to dive into a freezing river, at dusk, in a snowstorm, or merely rash? Skutnik had never taken life-saving, and there are techniques to be learned for rescuing a drowning person. It's not simple. It requires expertise, a commodity as generous in supply in this city as complications, and you get a certificate that says you're qualified.
There are, truthfully, any number of valid reasons to be considered, any number of possible consequences to be weighed, and while we are weighing and considering, it is, if not exactly easy, at least easier to stand grazed for a moment by pity and terror, our imaginations afire but our bodies paralyzed, before we eventually move on, averting our eyes from those other eyes.
It is unlikely that Lenny Skutnik could see Priscilla Tirado's eyes from his vantage, eyes filled with helpless terror that transfixed us, helpless too, to the television set, but he could see her arms vainly flailing at the water; she was about to drown. The sight that seized our horrified imaginations moved Skutnik to an act of spontaneous, uncalculated courage, devoid of phony machismo, that few of us have ever had the privilege to witness but that all of us, not only Mrs. Tirado, have cause to be grateful for. He did not roar across a canyon on a motorcycle--an ego trip if there ever was one--or take Niagara Falls in a barrel, showing thereby only the foolishness to which a man can aspire in the name of bravery and, with luck, survive. He showed us something far more difficult and far more extraordinary: that an ordinary man, in the course of what might have been an ordinary day, can perform an extraordinary act, as unself-conscious an act as a person is capable of, an act that requires as much self-possession as a person is capable of.
He, and the other ordinary people who performed such extraordinary acts that calamitous day, including the passenger in the water who gave his life that others might be saved, reminded us once again that a man can transcend his limitations, the frailty of his flesh. They demonstrated what courage takes--a sense of the self as sure as it is unconscious-- and what courage is: a profoundly generous gesture. The root of courage is heart, and the heart, Pascal told us, has its reasons that reason cannot know.