NEW CASTLE —
“Does my family know?”
A simple question. Just four words.
That’s all Captain Richard Phillips wanted to hear after a horrifying ordeal at sea when he was taken hostage by Somali pirates.
“Does my family know?”
He utters the line during a heart-wrenching scene while being examined by a military physician. Despite the doctor’s soothing voice, Phillips maintains a numbed, restless gaze.
What happened? Where am I? Whose blood is this? Did someone call my wife?
You might feel a little, too, after seeing “Captain Phillips,” a powerful, moving and intense account of the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama. It is believed to be the first pirate seizure of a ship registered under the American flag since the early 19th century.
Don’t get me wrong. You know exactly who you are rooting FOR during the movie. Yet you’ll feel a little uneasy rooting AGAINST anyone.
In other words, there’s very little that’s black and white in this story, but there are certainly more than 50 shades of gray.
That’s because the film’s “hero” isn’t what we’re used to expecting on the big screen. And it’s because the pirates aren’t exactly wise-cracking swashbucklers from the Caribbean.
Instead, they’re teenagers. Essentially kids with guns, kids on yet another mission to secure a booty and please their warload waiting for them back at home.
They’re kids who speak Somali and a bit of English, yet the only language they truly understand is greed.
But you feel for them in a strange way because it’s all they’ve been taught from childhood. What we behold, we become. And they cling to it as a drowning man would a life-preserver.
That is, until they meet their match in Captain Richard Phillips, a merchant marine commanding the Maersk Alabama. Played brilliantly by Tom Hanks, his job was to direct the ship through dangerous waters and deliver cargo to Mombasa, Kenya.
I really, really liked the character Hanks portrayed in the movie — but I absolutely loved his CHARACTER in the film.
Here are four reasons why:
1) He’s an everyday hero — If I was a bit fuzzy earlier, let me be clear now: Captain Richard Phillips is no Jason Bourne. Or Jack Ryan. Or Ethan Hunt from “Mission Impossible.” He is you. And he is me. A regular guy faced with irregular circumstances at sea.
So when Somali pirates take over his ship, he fights back with brains rather than brawn. His grace under pressure and selfless actions help turn a dire situation into one with hope.
The lesson: You don’t need to be a superhero to have an impact. Just do what you can, with what you have, right where you are. Yes, we CAN be creative and compelling despite budget cuts at work. We CAN rise above an injury to a star player. We CAN find hope despite a less than perfect environment at home.
We just have to believe we can.
2) He was prepared, and he prepared his team — After he was given warnings of pirate activity in his vicinity, Phillips put his men through a series of training activities should trouble arise. In fact, the crew was in the midst of an exercise when the drill suddenly became real. And the well-schooled seamen carried out their duties nearly flawlessly.
The lesson: We can’t anticipate ALL that life throws at us, but can get ahead of plenty. If you’re a coach, fundamentals are a non-negotiable. But you also must work on special situations. On the playing field or in the office, practice breeds confidence. On stage, rehearsal makes for a wonderful performance. So train with a purpose and it will become second nature as “showtime” arrives.
3) He never stopped influencing — Despite dehydration and severe beatings by his captors, Captain Phillips maintained his heart for leadership. He kept reminding the pirates that they DID have a future, but they were running out of time to realize it as some heavy artillery was bearing down on them.
There are a couple of unforgettable exchanges between Phillips and Muse, who was named “captain” of the pirates, in part, because he could speak English. He would rename Phillips “Irish” and the two developed a rapport as the captain attempted to persuade the young pirates to abort their mission.
Muse: “I’ve come too far. I can’t give up.”
Phillips: “There’s got to be something other than being a fisherman or kidnapping people.”
Muse: “Maybe in America, Irish, maybe in America.”
Phillips, encouraging the youngest captor not to settle: “You’re not just a fisherman. ... You’re not just a fisherman.”
The lesson: Who are we trying to influence? Who continues to ignore our wisdom and advice despite repeated efforts? Who refuses to believe they were born for something more than what they are experiencing now?
Have you thrown your hands up in surrender yet? I’m often tempted, too.
But what if it takes just one more discussion over coffee? One more text. Or one more phone call.
Would that make all your efforts worth it?
We’ll never know unless we try.
Just once more.
4) He focused on his family — Despite only a brief appearance by his wife in the film, we saw traces scattered throughout that Phillips is a devoted husband and father. E-mails sent from the ship. Constantly gazing at a photo of his wife and kids. Scribbling an urgent love letter home, even as his lifeboat is being tossed about and Navy SEALS prepare to execute a daring rescue.
The lesson: Are we too busy and overscheduled to the point of becoming a stranger to our own families? Are we being held captive by a paycheck, perfectionism or the approval of others? Has our job actually pirated us away from our primary calling?
Or, to repeat the question posed by Captain Phillips a bit earlier: “Does my family know?”
The answer, as always, is yes.
They will always know.
But whether that means troubled waters or smooth sailing, only we know for sure.
Aye, aye, Captain.
Thank you for the powerful reminder.