I keep thinking about the film Titanic as we begin to absorb the public health and financial impacts of hitting this coronavirus iceberg. First there’s the feeling of nothing much happening, or maybe it’s something, but we’ll all be fine. Awareness that the ship is going down creeps in at different paces to different people, and reactions vary. Quick-wittedness, denial, altruism, selfishness, desperation, calm. The entire panoply of human nature unfolds while the orchestra plays on.
What sticks with me the most from the film are the parents in steerage, cuddling with their children in cramped metal cots. Mothers and fathers know they’re all doomed, but they do what they can– speaking in soothing tones to their still-oblivious sons and daughters, telling stories, performing the ritual of nightly prayer, holding them tight. Love creates a cocoon of security: False, but also true.
Psychotherapists call this “felt security.” It reflects not so much the dire dimensions of the actual situation, but the reassuring sustenance drawn from the relationship with a loving, trustworthy, and reliable caregiver. Those parents in steerage send the message, “I am here with you right now, and in this moment together we are okay.”
A lot of us, even those who are not parents, have been doing a lot of that recently as we try to maintain a sense of normalcy and well-being in the midst of a global pandemic and economic meltdown. Posting pictures of sunsets, flowers, the family dog, funny memes; poetry chain letters; neighbors opening their windows to sing, clap, or howl; sewing masks for front-line workers; donating to especially hard-hit groups; buying gift cards from our favorite restaurants and small businesses; moving our normal activities like school, yoga, fitness, book groups, phone banking, work from real life to Zoom—all help knit together a sense of security.
Titanic also depicts a society similar to ours in terms of class and economic inequality. The rich are the most protected while the poor suffer, even though they’re all in the same boat. The unsinkable Molly Brown, a member of the privileged class, decries the entitlement and selfishness of her peers, urging them to make more room on the lifeboats to save far more people. Her plea goes largely unheeded.
We are seeing the same dynamics play out now: just look at the back-and-forth of the recent $2.2 trillion relief bill passed by Congress. Thanks largely to Democrats, more room was created to help the most vulnerable. Far more will be needed.
Just as not everyone perished in the Titanic, we will somehow survive this. But whether or not we view all as deserving a place on the life boats will determine who and how many.