There are many theories as to why the Titanic disaster happened. Some people blame the slow reaction, or lack of preparation, of the crew. Others blame the insufficient lifeboats for the number of people on board. The Onion, the satirical magazine, may have come closest to the mark. In a 1999 article this was the headline-
WORLD’S LARGEST METAPHOR HITS ICE-BERG
Just in case this was too subtle, the subtitle rammed home the point, “TITANIC, REPRESENTATION OF MAN’S HUBRIS, SINKS IN NORTH ATLANTIC. 1,500 DEAD IN SYMBOLIC TRAGEDY.”
Hubris! Now there is a word that is not used often enough. It should be used more because it gets to the heart of so many of our problems. Hubris is an overinflated view of your own importance; mutton dressed up as lamb, the ego masquerading as a god. A ship named Titanic is asking for trouble. The Titans were Greek gods descendant from Gaia and Uranus who were defeated by younger and more powerful gods, the Olympians. The Titans were good, but not as good as they thought they were; hence an edge of complacency.
The hubris around the Titanic was that it was unsinkable, “not even God could sink her” as legend had it. Rumor has it that as passengers lined up for lifeboats, some opted to stay on board because they thought it would be safer. The tragic image of tiny lifeboats bobbing in the wake of a sinking Titanic puts paid to any hint of hubris. Another ship in the same fleet with the Titanic was supposed to be called Gigantic, but the name was changed to Britannic after the sinking.
You would think we would have learnt from examples such as the Titanic. But apparently not. It turns out that its human pride that is unsinkable. Hubris builds levees along hurricane prone coastal areas, imagining that they are safe to settle in. Hubris builds nuclear power plants in areas prone to earthquakes and tidal waves. Hubris drills for oil within an inch of the habitat’s life. Hubris over populates, over consumes, over develops, over, over, over and over again. Hubris makes us think we are immortal and unbreakable, and that the earth is our resource to mine.
Eco-activist, Dave Foreman said,
Our environmental problems originate in the hubris of imagining ourselves as the central nervous system or the brain of nature. We’re not the brain. We are a cancer on nature.
The Titanic used state of the art technology but maybe depended too much on their technology and left behind common sense and its essential partner humility. We get so proud of our progress, but forget that we need to match our technological intelligence with emotional intelligence. Hubris is when your ego’s eyes become bigger than your stomach. We need intentions with integrity to match our ingenuity and inventions. The consequence of hubris can be catastrophic. Its an awful irony how close the word hubris looks to the word debris. This is a radio transcript from the United States Chief of Naval Operations, on October 10, 1995.
Station No.1: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the north to avoid a collision.
Station No.2: Recommend you divert your course 15 degrees to the south to avoid a
Station No.1: This is the captain of a U.S. Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.
Station No.2: No, I say again, you divert YOUR course.
Station No.1: This is the aircraft carrier Enterprise. We are a large warship of the U.S.
Navy. Divert your course now!
Station No.2: This is the Puget Sound lighthouse. It’s your call.
Even though hubris can seem like an immovable object at times, it is no match for a lighthouse, or an iceberg.
My favorite explanation for the Titanic disaster is a recent discovery and its takes us back to the heart of our relationship with the universe as a whole. In 2011 astronomers came up with a new theory for the disaster. Three months before the Titanic sank, the earth came as close to the moon as it had in 1400 years, and a full moon to boot. This happened a day after the Earth’s annual close dance with the sun. This meant that the sun, earth and moon were in very rare alignment in January of 1912. In April, when icebergs would usually have subsided, the tides were still high as a kite on all that lunar and solar gravity. The unseasonable icebergs were more than a hallucination however. They were real, and even their tips were enough to sink the Titanic.
Nature’s patterns demand to be respected, or else. We humans are so insignificant on a universal scale; we are the motes of dust that nature sneezes out in earthquakes, the specks of salt lost in the rumble of a tsunami, the molecules of hydrogen bouncing on the tip of the tip of an iceberg.
Spiritual hubris is the assumption that we exist somehow independent of each other, that life exists for our benefit and that our actions don’t matter. We don’t, it doesn’t and they do. The essence of spiritual awakening is to rise from the slumber of separateness, and wake to your place in a whole that transcends and includes you. Look to the alignment of the earth, moon and sun as a metaphor for respectful interdependence.
Realizing (or remembering) that you are connected to, but only one part of, the whole fills you with gratitude, humility, openness and self responsibility. You are a wave in the ocean of life, here today and gone tomorrow. But while you are here, choose to make a mindful mark, sometimes bobbing up and down quietly, other times raging and pounding the shoreline of ecological injustice. Either way, you eventually merge back into the ocean. Conservationist Richard Leakey said,
To have arrived on this earth as a product of a biological accident, only to depart through human arrogance, would be the ultimate irony.
I began this series with lessons from the Titanic and the History Channel’s Titanic tweets. My tweeting was cut short by Twitter’s Fail Whale. It was an appropriate reminder that no technology is perfect, no person is unbreakable and no system flawless. Technology can be used for good, as the History Channel itself was proving, and if it’s partnered by some clear headed integrity, we can ease the suffering that is so often caused by human hubris. If, on the other hand, hubris continues to rule human nature, the Titanic won’t be the last or worse disaster to befall the earth and her people.