Disasters have been on my mind lately. Scenes of violence in Syria, tornadoes in Indiana, earthquakes in Turkey: The world seems to be in a cataclysmic rut, both natural and man-made. As we approach the centennial of America's disaster nonpareil—the sinking of the Titanic—perhaps it's time to again reflect and learn from the most iconic boating mishap in history.
We all know the general plot: "Unsinkable" ship meets iceberg. Iceberg dominates the conversation. Not enough room in lifeboats; poor communication skills from the crew. Massive loss of life. The end of a golden era of American wealth and privilege. It is part of our cultural DNA, a parable of biblical power.
For my family, however, the story has a more personal twist. My great-grandfather, Karl Howell Behr, and great-grandmother, Helen Monypeny Newsom, survived that unsuccessful maiden voyage. In fact, they may have become secretly engaged aboard Titanic, though ensuing events understandably delayed their announcement. The experience, with its attendant survivor's guilt, haunted Karl and eventually drove him to a nervous breakdown. A decade later, he became a Wall Street banker, just in time for the Great Crash, which he also survived; his luck was good, but his timing could have been better. In researching his life, I've seen how the Titanic episode changed everything for him, and I would like to pass on some lessons that might help his future Wall Street brethren—and the rest of us—avoid similar decades of regret and despair.
Be humble. OK, you've built the biggest, richest, strongest boat—or bank—around. Good for you. But don't go around declaring yourself to be invincible, "too big to fail," answerable to nobody. Not only will you tempt fate, but people will view your comeuppance as justice served.
Have a realistic emergency plan. Risk-taking makes life exciting and business profitable. It drives American innovation and has traditionally provided the ambitious a path for upward mobility. But risk-taking doesn't mean being irresponsible with others' safety. If all your bets go bad, have a careful backup plan for, say, paying back the people whose money you lost. Or at least putting them all in lifeboats.
If people need help, then help them. The catastrophe of Titanic's maiden voyage produced an entire literary subgenre of self-sacrifice and villainy: well-bred men staying behind to allow another lifeboat berth to a woman or child; former Teddy Roosevelt aide Archie Butt wielding a gun (or, in some tellings, a metal pipe) to protect the "women and children first" rule against selfish, panicking wretches scurrying up from steerage (a certain whiff of class bias permeates many of these stories). The heroic and public-minded hauling passengers out of the water and into their lifeboats while others merely stood by and let the swimmers freeze to death. Not only is helping others the right thing to do, it can save you a lot of mental suffering. Trust me. My great-grandfather was tortured by the fact that his lifeboat had empty seats but no one rescued those in the water. His boat-fellows decided it was too dangerous. He was just a young man and so went along with the majority, but deep down he knew that he also bore a personal responsibility. He spent the next decades trying to redeem himself. Don't let this happen to you.
The slow lane will also get you there, in one piece. One popular theory about the collision blames an overzealous White Star Line director, J. Bruce Ismay, for pushing the crew to make the voyage in record time. Had they been running at a normal speed, the theory goes, the iceberg could have been spotted in time for the ship to change course.
True or not, the lesson is clear: No matter what Fast Company and your BlackBerry tell you, faster is not always better. The current Occupy protests prove that our society requires an occasional pause from the quest for the growth of gross domestic product and quarterly earnings in order to attend to our common souls.
Bathing in a Starbucks bathroom sink not your style? No problem. Find your own way to take your foot off the accelerator, even for a few minutes. Sit down. Turn off your phone. Read a book. It could save your life.
Honor matters. In one sense, we've come a long way in the last century, thanks to new ways of thinking, whether it is in civil rights or technology. But along the way some important notions have passed out of the mainstream discourse that we desperately need to revive. First among them is honor. Along with bravery, we are generally content to relegate this old-fashioned-sounding term to the world of the professional military or perhaps an occasional lone Samaritan on a subway platform. But to many men on the decks of Titanic, honor was a tangible thing, something worth drowning for. Amid the headlong rush of self-interest that drives much of our current political and economic thinking, let us take a moment to imagine a terrified derivatives trader deciding that his spot on a lifeboat should rightfully go to a less fortunate stranger. Can't do it? Me neither. As a people, we have discounted honor, but its real value never declines—our own does instead.
First-class status protects you only so much. If you held a first-class ticket on Titanic and two XX chromosomes (the latter a relatively recent discovery at the time), you had a 94 percent chance of making it onto a lifeboat. With XY, your chances drop to 31 percent. And if your sleeping berth was second-or third-class—or God forbid, steerage—you stood next to no chance of surviving. A similar calculus applies to our current economic woes: The wealthiest can weather most kinds of decline by insulating themselves from reality. But if the whole ship goes down, most of the wealthy will drown along with the rest of us.
Even the survivors—whatever that means in this bleak scenario—cannot emerge unscathed. Conscience and humanity prevent the clean getaway, sooner or later. This is the greatest lesson we can learn from this iconic collision of man and ice: We may dine in separate saloons, but we are all truly fellow passengers, hurtling forward through dark and dangerous waters.
Django Haskins is a writer, performer and musician who plays with the band The Old Ceremony. He lives in Durham.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Lessons from the Titanic."