This week saw worldwide centennial observances to mark the 100th year of the sinking of the RMS Titanic on April 14, 1912. This event, perhaps the “Queen Mother” of all disasters in our collective memory, continues to hold our fascination and interest after a century. Of course, blockbuster movies help to keep that interest alive, even when told Hollywood-style (i.e., with great artistic license).
The irony of the ill-fated voyage was that the ship was supposedly “unsinkable” because of a new design utilizing multiple water-tight compartments to stem flooding in the event the hull was breached in a collision. The extent of human pomp and hubris—and arrogant self-confidence, especially based on our technological triumphs—was portrayed well in the James Cameron film “Titanic.”
The tragic consequence of this pride was that the number of lifeboats on board was dramatically fewer than needed for the 2200+ passengers and crew on board. Such was their feeling of adequacy and invincibility that the White Star Line opted for temporal concerns such as more deck space and uncluttered views for First Class passengers rather than to provide adequate boats in the event of an emergency. It’s reminiscent of the closing lines from the Victorian poem “Invictus” by Henley:
“I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”
We all know the rest of the story: in a matter of a few days, the ship that “not even God could sink,” hit an iceberg and, within three hours, sank over two miles to the bottom of the North Atlantic. Over 1500 passengers died because of the pride of man evidenced by a lack of preparation.
Sometimes I can’t help feeling that our world, especially Western culture, has many parallels with the Titanic. We have sailed in opulence while so much of the world is locked in steerage below. We have placed so much confidence in our own adequacy, our props, our wealth, our armaments, our accomplishments, that we neglect to notice that we are very small, very vulnerable, and very dependent indeed. One of the most chilling scenes in “Titanic” is when we see a shot of the ship from a great distance, firing emergency flares, almost unnoticeable in the vast expanse of ocean. It puts the ship into a starkly realistic perspective. I think we could stand to roll back for a “long shot” of where we are on the cruise of Planet Earth.
We who have teethed on “have it your way” can prolong our illusion of invincibility as long as conditions will support it. Take away those barriers to disaster and we, too, could find ourselves in a similarly deadly and dependent place. Truth be known…in many ways, we are already there.
Permit me a little fantasy: Let’s say the Titanic had had no lifeboats on board. And let’s say a rescue vessel was nearby and pulled up alongside our endangered ship, offering rescue. Let’s also imagine this Samaritan vessel is a rusty, oily tub with lots of fishy smells and residue—at any rate a far cry below what we experienced and felt entitled to in Titanic’s first class. Should we shop for a different lifeboat? Should we venture on a hope that there’s someone else out there with accommodations more to our liking?
If an Ark has ever pulled alongside a doomed Planet Earth, who can we blame if we reject the offered rescue? It’s something to consider. “Invictus” is great for recitations, but small consolation for shipwrecks. >mow