In 1997, like millions of others, I went to the cinema to see James Cameron’s epic film Titanic. I sat unmoved as Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet went through their romantic shenanigans but driving home afterwards, I suddenly found myself weeping for the needless folly of it all. Why hadn’t the captain and crew turned the boat sooner? Why had they disregarded the warnings? Why had they all been so besotted by their own myth that they hadn’t seen disaster looming?
I was reminded of this moment recently, reading page 100 of Thomas Berry’s book The Great Work, a meditation on the state of our planet and a call for action.
Long before the collision those in command had abundant evidence that icebergs lay ahead. The course had been set, however, and no-one wished to alter its direction. Confidence in the survival capacities of the ship was unbounded. Already there were a multitude of concerns in carrying out the normal routine of a voyage. What happened to that “unsinkable” ship is a kind of parable for us, since only in the most dire of situations do we have the psychic energy needed to examine our way of acting on the scale that is now required. The daily concerns over the care of the ship and its passengers needed to be set aside for a more urgent concern, the well-being of the ship itself.
Berry’s use of the Titanic metaphor piqued my interest so I trawled the internet for some more historical details of the actual event. I read the stories of survivors and of some who had planned to make the voyage but had changed their minds for various reasons: family affairs, illness, urgent business elsewhere, etc.
My favourite “missing the boat” story was that of a certain Mr. Frank Carlson who, at 8.10pm on Wednesday 10 April 1912 as the Titanic slipped its moorings at Cherbourg, was standing at the side of the road 5O miles away kicking the tyres of his broken down car in frustration, a first class ticket for New York in his back pocket.
Of course, we cannot miss the boat or jump ship. For good or ill, we are all on board and there are no lifeboats. There will be no lucky escapes, no survivors, if our ship goes down. I don’t know if there is yet time to avoid the iceberg but there’s no doubt that we are still going full steam ahead and it’s pretty clear that those on the bridge aren’t listening to the warnings from the crow’s nest.
We first class passengers, in the industrialised world, wrangling over our perquisites and privileges aren’t making life any easier. It’s time for us to take more interest in where we are going and to decide that rearranging the deckchairs to get a better place in the sun is not our main priority, for there’ll be no-one left to weep at our folly if we don’t.