Like many of my fellow Brits--and like many Americans, too--I have long been fascinated by this story of human hubris and misplaced certitudes. But the real questions of the drama are deeply personal ones: How would I myself have behaved when confronted with certain death in the icy Atlantic Ocean within a mere two hours? More agonizing, how would I have behaved with the knowledge that others in the same predicament would be saved? Or, faced with the alternative of life or death, would I have fought for a seat in a lifeboat with the knowledge that another could have taken it? And, almost worse still, how would it feel to be faced with the possibility of grabbing a lifeboat seat when there's no one else around to take it--with the deep inner knowledge that I would have to live with the survivor's guilt?
These are the fundamental questions that confront us in the story of Titanic. And they are, of course, unanswerable. We must all deal with the knowledge that we have to die, but what if it is to be within the next two seconds, in a car crash? The next two minutes--as in, say, an airplane crash? The next two hours on Titanic? Or the next two years with a diagnosis of untreatable cancer? The greatest of all philosophical lessons--and the one that Buddhism teaches well--is to be prepared to die. The moment may come when we least expect it, or after years of illness and decline. The important thing is to be prepared for either eventuality--or any of those mentioned above. And the great lesson of the "unsinkable" Titanic is its reminder of the disturbing truth that everything is vulnerable, and everything is subject to the passage of time, including ourselves.
And then there's the other lesson so poignantly dramatized by that event, less personal but no less relevant in our culture one hundred years later: the humanly designed inequity that rules the ship in which we cross the ocean of our lives. For passengers on the Titanic, it was a matter of both class and wealth; the privilege of class was determined primarily, a century ago, by birth and heritage, and for the most part wealth came hand in hand with class. We try to pretend, in America today, that we live in a classless society. And yet, on this particular Titanic on which we have been assigned our berths, we find that there are still the same distinctions between rich and poor, between those with privilege and those who lack it, between those who are born on the "right side of the tracks," with the good fortune to have the right parents and be of the acceptable skin color. There are still those who labor or are left stranded below decks, beating desperately at locked gates while others board the lifeboats. We still have much to learn, as a species. Not all of it is about life and death. But all of it is about survival.