Titanic Wisdom

April 16th, 2012

I woke up with a sinking feeling on the day of the 100 year commemoration of the Titanic tragedy. When I checked my tweet stream, I found the History Channel’s real time Titanic tweets. The tweets followed the fateful steps leading up to and including the sinking of the Titanic. It was powerful to follow the story in chronological order and in short, tweetable bursts. Then I got hit by Twitter’s fail whale sign (over capacity). It seemed ironic to get blocked out of Titanic tweets by a whale held up a flock of birds (for those who use Twitter). More about that later.

It has been said that the most popular topics of all time are Jesus, the Civil War, and the Titanic. The number of books written about the Titanic disaster is surpassed only by books about Jesus and the civil war. What is it about the Titanic that has made it such an enduring story 100 years later? There have been other significant ships lost at sea, but none have had the impact of the Titanic. Is it just the sheer size of the ship, the largest of its day, or is there more to it? I think there is more going on, and I want to explore the significance of the Titanic in depth in this series of articles.

I’m sure the intrigue is partly due to the size of the ship. It’s partly the length of time it took for the ship to sink. It’s partly the phenomenal success of James Cameron’s film. The other thing that surprised me on Twitter was the fact that some people didn’t realize it actually happened. Some people apparently think it’s just a Hollywood story. Getting beyond Hollywood to the reality where Leonardo and Kate were not actually on the Titanic and the string quartet did not play Celine Dion while the ship went down, there is something more significant to learn.

The 2 hours and 40 minutes between the iceberg collision and the sinking was the perfect length for a feature film because there was enough time to tease out the romance, class conflicts, harrowing dilemmas and various other human conflicts that we can all imagine took place in those hours. The story of the Titanic taps into our human desire for heroic inspiration; in the same way that the Jesus story, the civil rights stories and multiple religious and non religious stories capture our imagination. It tells the story of every one of our lives, on a massive scale so that the point is made like a sledge hammer. It’s a story about human endurance in the midst of ALL the ups and downs of life. Hope resurfaces against all odds. In the face of awful tragedy, those of us left behind carry the torch to keep their memory alive.

We take the significance of the Titanic for granted because some of its language has entered into our vernacular. We talk about rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic to describe making trivial changes to terminal problems. Or as Chuck Palahniuk said about Martha Stewart in Fight Club, “Martha’s polishing the brass on the Titanic; it’s all going down, man.” Some might suggest, for example, that the ever changing makeup of congress in America is a little like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

We talk about the tip of the iceberg. Because you can only see the top part of an iceberg, it’s a brilliant analogy for only seeing the tip of a problem, for example not seeing the tips of icebergs in the Antarctic is the tip of an even more significant ecological iceberg.

We talk about women and children first, although I suspect on the ship it may have been first class first. Apparently in today’s currency a first class cabin on the Titanic cost $100,000 and a third class ticket was $500. More third class passengers died than first and second class combined, and half of the children on board died. It seems like class brought more advantage than gender or age.

We talk about “when ships pass in the night.” I don’t know if this originated with the Titanic, but it was certainly a huge part of the story that another ship was so close and yet did nothing to help. The ship called The Californian was so close they could see the flares firing from the Titanic but thought little of it. We are so often like ships in the night, when our struggles are so close and yet we pass each other by. Imagine how many lives would have been saved if the Californian had responded quickly. Imagine the suffering that would be eased if we saw the signs of each other’s distress and truly empathized.

My favorite Titanic phrase is “the band played on” describing the string quartet that chose to keep playing while the ship went down. I’m going to write more about this theme in a later article. Suffice to say, we all have gifts that can help the planet, and with conviction and perseverance we can ease the suffering of others.

This is human purpose; to wake up to our unique gifts and express them in service of any and ALL who need it. This is both the lesson and the inspiration from the Titanic story. When people act independent of their connection to others, people suffer. When people act with arrogant complacency (hubris) towards the earth, we suffer. When we ignore others’ pleas for help, people suffer and the earth suffers. On the other side, when people act with care and responsibility, suffering is eased. The Titanic is every person’s story and it is the story of people interacting with nature. It is a tragic reminder that mindlessness sinks us, and yet it’s possible to rise above the odds and express a higher form of humanity.

The Titanic is the story of human struggle, and yet it’s also the story of overcoming struggle.

The ultimate question is not to second guess the decisions that people made 100 years ago. It is to choose how each of us will act now. Be more than ships passing in the night. Do more than rearrange the deckchairs. Play on with your own unique music, no matter what.

In the next articles, I explore the two lessons from the Titanic as they relate to life today.

1. Hubris (arrogant complacency) especially as it relates to earth issues.

2. The Human spirit especially as it relates to courage and perseverance.

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  1. [...] 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 [...]

  2. This is such a well written post. You are so good at taking a story like the Titanic and mine it for life lessons. Which now I know are many.

  3. [...] on lessons from the Titanic. The first lesson is the danger of hubris (arrogant assumptions). The second is the power of [...]

  4. Jani says:

    I live in Southampton, England, the city Titanic sailed from, so the anniversary was marked here in many ways – most of the crew came from here and around 500 Southamptonians were lost. This excellent article covers much of what we were talking about last year. Another analogy I think is one of trusting those in authority and paying the ultimate price. We place our lives in the hands of governments and corporations who start wars, ignore environmental crises and, in the end, are fallible and often driven by less noble motives of greed and arrogance. Who won’t even admit there’s a problem when the ship is sinking. Who will look after their own class first
    and leave the rest of us to perish. I think the story resonates because many of us are 3rd class passengers! Perhaps we should start building some rafts :)

  5. ian says:

    Well said Jani. I resonate strongly with your words. It must have been a powerful place to honor the anniversary. Be well.