Smaller Boats

April 15, 2012
Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein

For some reason, the legend of the Titanic grabbed my imagination around the sixth grade. I seem to recall a pictorial from LIFE magazine that tried to re-create the disaster, about which I wrote a class report. I have this memory of lying on my playroom floor and obsessing over the drawings of the images. It was so haunting. In 1985, we got to see the first photographs of the real Titanic wreck, taken by deep-sea robot when Robert Ballard and Jean-Louis Michel discovered the great ship strewn over a thousand acres of Atlantic seabed. I studied the ghostly, underwater photos, still haunted by the tragedy, the thought of all that glory, all those people, all that hope and pride going down in less than three hours in icy waters 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland.

The story of the Titanic has been part of our national lore for a hundred years now, in fact exactly one hundred years today. This glorious, "unsinkable" creation left England on April 10, 1912 and sailed for five days before side-swiping an iceberg at 11:40 PM and sank at 2:20 AM. Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were right on the starboard hull when it happened, too, and saw it up close. I'm kidding, of course, but I am not kidding when I tell you that all over Twitter the past few days have been messages from young people who had no idea until this anniversary came up that the Titanic story was true. "I thought it was just a story!" wrote one. "OMG (Oh My God), you guys, the Titanic really happened!" wrote another.

James Cameron's movie "Titanic" - one of the highest grossing films of all time - is the version of the story that is now sealed in the imagination of a new generation who will always associate the tragedy with the sight of two beautiful movie stars spreading their arms on the ship's prow. "I'm king of the world," cries Jack. Soon enough, the doomed pair run around the sinking ship in increasing panic until the amazing moment when they lie together on the stern of this massive ship that actually cracked in half and hovered for a horrible moment vertical in the water, ready to take its violent dive 12,000 feet down to the ocean floor. It is an unbelievable cinematic moment that really happened. The Titanic did not sink peacefully beneath the waves while its horrified passengers looked on from lifeboats or bobbing in life preservers (where most of them died from hypothermia or heart failure). Its last moments were actually incredibly violent. What you see in the movie is how it really happened. It fixes itself in our imaginations not just for the spectacle of a fantastic feat of engineering going down in such a terrible and dramatic way, but because it was the impossible, the unthinkable, coming to pass. The Titanic was said to be unsinkable. And that is why the builders of the Titanic thought it unnecessary to equip the ship with enough lifeboats for all the passengers, and therefore, those 1500 perished at sea.

To this day, the thought that I had in the sixth grade remains with me: How does anybody think that anything is indestructible? How could anybody think that nothing could bring their ship down? Why do we live in such denial of how fate and fortune really work? There's the drama. Not Kate and Leo running through corridors of waist-high freezing water looking for a way out. Not the old lady throwing that gaudy blue necklace into the ocean (and what, was she kidding!? What selfishness!) but the ancient human drama of DENIAL, which, as they say, isn't just a river in Egypt.

It is such a maddening and frustrating and poignant human tendency, this talent we have at avoiding or denying the fact that everything is "destructible," including ourselves. We are creatures who never want to think that the ship is going to sink, and so often we either put off building enough lifeboats until it is too late, or we do not build them at all. One of the great balancing acts in life is to not fall prey to anxiety to the extent that we walk around with a life preserver around our middle at all times, expecting the ship to go down, but also that we do not fail to plan for the inevitability of certain kinds of shipwrecks, and build a little lifeboat for security.

I think you can get the pastoral message I am communicating with this metaphor, so I won't belabor it. But we all have our Titanics: maybe possessions - or beliefs - or attitudes - that are as big as luxury liners and that feel impossible to steer clear of icebergs. If we build smaller boats, we can maneuver so much more easily through life, see where we're going, get out faster in the event of danger.

The particular poignancy of the Titanic disaster is that it came at a time in history when our Unitarian theological tradition's motto, "Onward and upward forever and ever," seemed to be a possibility. It was the Progressive Era, a time of great social reform and technological advances, a moment in between the excesses of the Gilded Age and the start of the First World War. The Titanic disaster was a devastating blow to those who placed such faith in this magnificent feat of engineering that they did not consider it a possibility that it could fail. Therefore: lifeboats for only one-third the number of passengers. This blend of arrogance, pride and certainty by the powerful is a combination that the ancient Greeks called hubris, and for the Greeks, hubris was delusion of one's own self-assurance that inevitably led to tragedy. In plays such as Oedipus the King or the myth of Daedalus and Icarus (whose father built him wings that gave him the god-like ability to fly, and who then flew too close to the sun and died), the Greeks made a healthy fear of hubris part of their public moral education.

America, a young country with a yet immature culture, did not have a tragic sensibility in 1912 and it does not have one still today. We don't warn against the sin of hubris because part of our national identity is to cheer those individuals who display a big dose of it, and make them into heroes. When they fail, going down in flames or breaking in half and sinking fast, we are shocked and savor the spectacle with a certain amount of Puritanical satisfaction (perhaps murmuring "pride goeth before a fall"), but without a sense of tragedy. We want to analyze how those things that were "too big to fail" could have failed so spectacularly. But those of us who study the Greeks know why they failed: HUBRIS. The gods don't like it. The gods, or the Fates, will take the air out of those over-inflated tires. That is what it means to have a tragic sensibility. Don't tempt the fates. This is why in so many of the world's cultures (and which is part of my own Jewish and Slovak heritage from the Old Country), you don't try to attract the evil eye by boasting. Because as soon as you say, "Nothing can sink this ship," just wait. You're going to be swimming soon enough!

Peoples who have survived thousands of years know: build smaller boats. Get in and out of port fast. Nothing is too big to fail. America is too young a nation to know this yet. We are feeling the strain and crack of some of our Titanic institutions in these past years as they have broken in the middle and violently spiraled and hit the ocean floor. We are, right now, in the process of realizing that we do not have enough life boats, and the chivalry of the "women and children first" era is obviously over.

S.O.S, the ship signaled to a tiny wireless station on Cape Race. It was a signal that had very rarely been used before, but is now a famous expression. Fourteen-year old apprentice Jim Myrick was the first to receive the signal, and he never spoke of the night of the disaster until he was a frail old man who had lost his hearing and was only able to converse with his family in Morse code. Who knows what that night did to him. He is just one character in this extraordinary drama, one player in this horrifying failure of treasure and life whose effects have reverberated through history for the past century.

And yet there was beauty amid the tragedy, and self-sacrificing love. We will never know all the stories. Yes, there was the cad who dressed as a woman and tried to sneak into one of the lifeboats. But there was also the captain, Edward Smith, who went down with his ship, and hundreds of the ship's crew who stayed on until the bitter end to help others preserve their own lives. There was the band, under the direction of Wallace Hartley, who valiantly continued to play until the ship went down; and it is generally agreed by survivors that the last song the band played was the hymn "Nearer My God To Thee." We also remember today Isidore and Ida Straus, owners of Macy's, who were sailing back from England to their prosperous life in New York. Mrs. Straus refused to get into a lifeboat without her husband, and they perished together. It may be the Strauses that James Cameron was honoring in the beautiful scene in his movie, when we see an elderly couple lying on their bed in their state room holding each other and preparing to go to their watery grave together.

Let us remember all of them today, mourning the loss of life, the shattering of so many dreams, and reflecting on, and learning from, the wisdom that the Titanic tragedy grants us: sad, hard lessons about the dangers of grandiosity, the disastrous outcome of hubris, and the virtue of building smaller boats, with lifeboats enough for all.

[I was greatly helped in the preparation of this sermon by Hampton Sides article, "Unseen Titanic" in National Geographic's April 2012 Issue. - VW]