Regret and Titanic

I can safely assume that everyone who is reading this has seen, or at least heard of, Titanic.

Though I did not manage to see it in the theater, I did to see it when it came out on DVD. There were friends of mine that had seen it many times, but to be honest, I can’t remember liking it or disliking it much when I saw it. Beyond the catastrophe scenes, and the scene where Jack draws Rose naked, I can’t remember much of it.

There was another scene that a friend of mine remembered. He’s an engineer, and he was feeling trapped in his job. At the time, he was working at a manufacturing plant. He spoke of a scene in that film where Jack, Leo’s character, is crashing the upper-class party with a borrowed suit. The only reason he’s there is that he won tickets on the Titanic in a card game; now he’s speaking to a table of blue bloods in the ship’s grand ballroom. It’s clear the some of the travelers want to shame him. Ever the deft survivor, Jack tells them:

I got everything I need right here with me. I got air in my lungs, a few blank sheets of paper. I mean, I love waking up in the morning not knowing what’s gonna happen or, who I’m gonna meet, where I’m gonna wind up. Just the other night I was sleeping under a bridge and now here I am on the grandest ship in the world having champagne with you fine people. I figure life’s a gift and I don’t intend on wasting it. You don’t know what hand you’re gonna get dealt next. You learn to take life as it comes at you, to make each day count.

My friend was telling me he envied that kind of life, in particular that kind of freedom.

On the surface, that seems incredible, a way to make life worth living. But there’s one part of that quote with which I take issue: the part about sleeping under a bridge.

That kind of behavior affords you freedom, true. But it also puts you in danger of being harassed, beaten, and killed. When you seem homeless people during the day, they’re not bright-eyed and bushy tailed. They’re usually barely awake with heavy rings under their eyes. Night is a time to be afraid and vigilant when you’re sleeping under bridges. Lazy virtue and a whimsical attitude isn’t going to save you from this.

This is morbid, but it’s the reality homeless people have to live with everyday. It’s a behavior people eschew because it can court horrible consequences. But the people involved in Titanic only see the freedom such a lifestyle affords. They don’t understand the drawbacks of it, because it’s a path they didn’t take. This line of thinking plays into to the idea of a soulmate.

Taken to a logical conclusion, the idea of a soulmate is really the idea that there is only one, best, determined path to a good life, i.e. you’d better fall in love with this person, take this job, make this decision, etc. or your life will be horrible. You see this in popular culture all the time. On the positive side, Rose makes the choice to fall in love with Jack. On the negative, if the protagonist misses their one opportunity to make the right move, they literally miss their chance at happiness.

Say, for instance, you fall in love with someone, and you never tell the person how you feel, or you do and they reject you. In popular culture, that girl or guy will always be in the back of your mind as ‘the one that got away.’ But then again, chances are good that they were a poor match for you, even if they were excellent people. Further, blinded by attraction, they could easily have been awful people, and made you utterly miserable. You just don’t know.

We do know that the world has billions of people, however. If you had a single soulmate, the chances of actually meeting the one ‘meant for you’ would be statistically insignificant. As a human being with social skills, you have the ability to connect, fall and out of love, and build relationships with many, many people. If you had only one shot at that, the pressure not to miss that person would be unbearable, and we’d have a lot more lonely people than we do.

This speaks to a larger point the movie is implicitly making: that the worth of a life falls to a single lover, a single path, and a single choice.

It is plain to see how wrong that is when we examine the way the Titanic disaster played out in real life.

Far from being the result of a single bad decision, the sinking of the Titanic was the culmination of many poor decisions that built up over time. The design of the ship itself, the number of lifeboats on the deck, the mistakes other ships that misinterpreted distress signals, the command decisions made to avoid the iceberg, etc. all contributed. After all that, all it took was a bit of bad luck and the ship sinks with 1500 people. The movie, of course, stops here and fast forwards to Rose finding some jewel on a submarine. But what James Cameron didn’t include was what came after, way back in 1914, after the survivors reached shore.

The needless loss of life was a shock to the world. There were songs, memorials, and above all, protests. The public demanded that there be better standards for safety in maritime trade and shipping. These demands led to SOLAS, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea. The convention aimed to standardize safety, communications, and training for the world’s merchant and passenger ships, and made the sea safer for all ships that followed. The same convention is still in effect today. Though a costly lesson, the Titanic likely saved many more lives than it took.

There are people that say we should have no regrets. That’s silly. We need to go through the pain of mistakes before we can actually understand the lessons we need to learn. Learning them is difficult, but it is far more hopeful than an obsession over single choices and supposedly better paths.

Titanic needs to gloss this over because a film can only show so much. It’s three and a half hours. Thankfully, our lives are longer. Jack and Rose might not, but we have a thousand chances to save the ship before it sinks. And if the ship does sink, so long as we’re breathing, we still can learn from our wreckage.

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