It was all right when it left here

A Thought for the Day on the Titanic and spirituality

I’ve just been back in Ireland for a post-Easter break. It was hard to miss the Titanic Centenary – built in Belfast and final departure from Cobh in the south. It was a sort of nostalgia-fest. Some of it was Belfast pride – apparently the tee shirts in Belfast say, ‘Well it was all right when it left here’. And some of it was about the tragedy of Irish emigration in the 19th century and the diaspora and all that. Here in Scotland we know about both of those.

Presidents – like bishops – are expected to say suitably benign things on this sort of occasion. But Ireland’s new President, Michael D Higgins, broke that rule. Reflecting on the foolish pride which claimed that the Titanic was unsinkable, he said,

‘We in our time have experienced the sense of crisis which occurs when something deemed unsinkable – in our case a speculative economy – is confounded not only by circumstance and error but by hubris

I think that there is a universal quality to that kind of leadership. It’s beyond politics – some would say it is spiritual but that risks getting confused with religion. Let’s just say that it fearlessly addresses things which are always part of human life everywhere. To smooth over the Titanic disaster with nostalgia demeans the reality of the loss. Better to name arrogance, pride, stupidity and wrongheadedness for what they are and for what they cost.

But there is another side to that kind of leadership. It’s positive and creative in its challenge. To be a successful society requires good leadership, good politics, consent. But good community like good family needs values which are beyond that – and they too have a spiritual quality. I’m thinking of generosity, readiness to sacrifice, willingness to go the extra mile, to forgive, let go and move on.

Those things are usually costly – but they give, shall we say, a quality of life which is blessed with an unsinkable buoyancy.