Why We Should Rearrange Deckchairs on the Titanic – Free Ebook

There remain few expressions better able to
capture the futility of a task than one which

compares our efforts to ‘rearranging the
deckchairs on the Titanic.’ The hull has

been breached, the ship is sinking; to concern
ourselves, at such a moment, with the position

of the loungers would be the ultimate folly,
the deepest possible failure to recognise

the true hopelessness of the situation. The
point sems grimly apt because we are, many

of us, a little like the passengers on a stricken
liner. Our larger hopes in life have been

fatally holed: we see now that our career
won’t ever particularly flourish; our relationships

will always be compromised; we’ve passed
our peak in terms of looks; our bodies are

going to fall prey to ever more humiliating
illnesses; society isn’t going to cure itself;

significant political progress looks deeply
improbable. Our ship is going down. It can

feel as if trying to improve our condition,
let alone find pleasure and distraction would

be an insult to the facts. Our instinct is
to be as funereal and gloomy as our ultimate

end.
But there’s one crucial element that differentiates

our predicament from that of the passengers
who lost their lives on the RMS Titanic in

the early hours of the 15th of April 1912:
time. They had little more than two hours

between the moment when they felt the ominous
shudder of the impact and the moment when

the once-majestic vessel broke apart and sank
into the north Atlantic. We’re going down

too, but far, far more slowly. It’s as if
the captain had let it be known that the hull

had been breached, that there were no lifeboats
and that there was zero chance of ever reaching

port but had added that it would, for that
matter, probably be many decades before we

would actually slip beneath the waves.
So though we can’t be saved, though the

end will be grim, we still have options as
to how to use our remaining time. We are involved

in a catastrophe, but there are better and
worse ways of filling the days. In the circumstances,

expending thought and effort on ‘rearranging
the deckchairs’ is no longer ridiculous

at all, it’s an eminently logical step;
there could be no higher calling.

When our large hopes for ourselves become
impossible, we have to grow inventive around

lesser, but still real, options for the time
that remains. Keeping cheerful and engaged,

in spite of everything, becomes a major task.
If we were on a very gradually sinking luxury

liner in the early 20th century, we might
every evening strive to put on a dinner jacket

and go and dance the Foxtrot to the music
of the string quintet, sing a cheerful song

or settle into the Second-class Library on
C-Deck – as, all the while, bits of seaweed

and debris lapped at our ankles. Or we might
look out for the best spot for our collapsible

recliner so that we could watch the sea-birds
wheeling in the sky or gain some privacy for

a long, soul-exploring conversation with a
new friend – to the sound of crockery smashing

somewhere in a galley down below. We might
try our first game of quoits on the slightly

tilting deck or drop in – contrary to our
habits up to this time – on a wild party in

Steerage. Of course our lives would – from
a larger perspective – remain a thorough disaster

but we might find we were starting to enjoy
ourselves.

Such inventiveness is precisely what we need
to learn to develop to cope with our state.

How can we invest the coming period with meaning
even though everything is, overall, entirely

dark? It’s a question our culture hasn’t
prepared us for. We’ve been taught to focus

on our big hopes, on how we can aim for everything
going right. We crave a loving marriage, deeply

satisfying and richly rewarding work, a stellar
reputation, an ideally fit body and positive

social change. We’ve not been prepared – as
yet – to ask ourselves, what remains when

many of these are no longer available, when
love will always be tricky, politics compromised

or the crowd hostile. What are our viable
versions of seeking the best spot for a deckchair

on a listing liner?
If marriage is far less blissful than we’d

imagined, perhaps we can turn to friendship;
if society won’t accord us the dignity we

deserve, perhaps we can find a group of fellow
outcasts; if our careers have irretrievably

faltered, perhaps we can turn to new interests;
if political progress turns out to be perennially

blocked and the news is always sour, we might
absorb ourselves in nature or history.

We are turning to what our society might dismiss
as Plan-Bs; what you do when you can’t do

the things you really want to do. But there’s
a surprising catch – or, really, the opposite

of a catch. It may turn out that the secondary,
lesser, lighter, reasons for living are, in

fact, more substantial than we’d imagined.
And once we get to know them, we might come

to think that they are what we should have
been focused on all along – only it has taken

a seeming disaster to get us to realise how
central they should always

have been.

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