Late in the night of April 14 and early morning of the 15th, 1912, the unthinkable happened. The Titanic, the world's greatest and most opulent ocean liner, struck an iceberg and sank into the frigid waters of the Atlantic claiming more than 1503 lives.
There were survivors, of course. Women and children were selected first for the limited spaces on the lifeboats, though most boats left Titanic's sinking well under full capacity. The combination of setting sail on "The Unsinkable" with insufficient lifeboats along with the arrogance of not heeding iceberg warnings were but two of the egregious errors contributing to this tragic (and avoidable) loss of life. Questions of safety and the glamour of luxury sea travel took a sobering turn with Titanic's demise.
Let's go back to that night and examine the behavior of a Mr. J. Bruce Ismay, managing director and chairman of the White Star Line. To be fair, no one knows exactly what prompted Mr. Ismay to abandon ship while so many passengers slipped into their watery graves. We do know he never fully recovered from his controversial rescue and I can only imagine how survivor's guilt consumed him for the rest of his life. Be that as it may, Mr. Ismay's actions serve a purpose for my character test, so he remains important in that regard.
People do unthinkable things in a panic. Crises bring out the best and worst in others as well as ourselves.
In a life or death situation, where do you stand on that fine line between character and self preservation?
I like to think that if faced with such a dilemma, a rational calm might come over me and I would avoid a panicked frenzy of pushing people out of the way to save my own skin. In theory, we all like to think we would not cause harm to others when our existence is threatened.
Mr. Ismay deserted the ship he proudly built and stood behind to get a place on a lifeboat reserved only for women and children. Some say he even donned women's clothing to get away with it. At 6'4" tall, it would have been a sight to behold. This was a cowardly act no matter how you look at it. How many women and children died, let alone all unfortunate passengers, animals included, who trusted The Unsinkable to reach its final destination? The steerage class, or those who could not make it to the upper decks - they were the majority of those who perished. But some exceptionally wealthy and notable figures decided to end their days like ladies and gentlemen when push came to shove; John Jacob Astor IV, Benjamin Guggenheim, and Isidor Straus, along with his wife Ida (who refused to leave her husband's side) were among those who died that night. (Captain Edward Smith chose to go down with his ship as is customary in maritime code of conduct.) Does "going down with the ship" make one a lady or a gentleman? Certainly not by itself. But in a helpless situation, do you exit with grace and dignity or approach your fate with the every-man-for-himself mentality?
Mr. Ismay chose the latter and karma wouldn't forget.
Whenever you are confronted with shady behavior from someone you know, ask yourself if they'd pass the Titanic Lifeboat test.
This mind "test" tells you everything you need to know about a person. I was married to a Joseph Ismay - a deserter. He wouldn't hesitate to shove me aside to claim a spot on a lifeboat. This realization was the catalyst that began the tumultuous unravelling of my marriage. I could not stay married to a man who would think nothing of sacrificing my life for his own.
It simply boils down to who has your back when it counts.
We are hard-wired for self preservation, but we also have moral codes to live by.
If a friend or partner would sell you out easily for his or her own gain, consider it a fair warning. You are not as valuable to him or her as you think. Now I don't advocate blissful partnerships being based on a "romantic" notion that someone must be willing to die to prove their love for you; rather, how quickly they put themselves first speaks volumes about how they'll behave when things get difficult. Pay attention to that.
Choose your comrades wisely.
The Titanic Lifeboat Character test. Who in your life would pass it, and who would not?
photos courtesy of National Geographic
illustration of siren © 2014 Johanna Westerman