I saw Titanic 37 times when it came out in 1997. Judge me all you want but I’m not ashamed. I saw in on bootleg VHS, I saw it when it opened in theaters, I saw in on CDs, LDs and DVDs. If a copy existed: I. Saw. It.
That movie is a 3 1/2-hour-long teachable moment and believe me, my fat twelve-year-old self learned some lessons from that film. The detriment of privilege? “Let the lifeboats be seated according to class…”; Parental affection? “Oh sit down mother, you’ll give yourself a nosebleed”; Feminism? “We’re women, Rose *tightens corset* our choices are never easy”; The perils of obesity? “She’s made of iron, sir, I assure you she’ll sink.” Maneuvering through Lahori dinners? “Remember, they love money so pretend like you own a gold mine and you’re in the club.” Seduction? “I want you to draw me like one of your French girls”; Revenge? “I’ll never let go, Jack. I’ll never let go.”
But for all my near-academic study of Jack and Rose’s doomed affair, the one lesson I didn’t pick up is also the most obvious: Course Correction. The concept was only crystalized to me some months ago while my friend and I went to visit a mausoleum. I was venting about Life as one does in a tomb of Death. Lahore, New York, rent, bills, air pollution, family stress, money, plans, career, love, everything was target practice. By after our second circuit around the gardens, she stopped in her tracks and said: “You’re in the middle of a course correction. Those are not easy, but they’re worth it.”
Suddenly I could taste the salt of the Titanic opening scenes.
Explained as a self-examination tool for navigating through life, the analogy assumes you are a ship going from point A to point B. You are headed to your goal when something happens. Maybe you noticed it, maybe you didn’t, but some mistake puts you 1% off your trajectory. If you catch this early, you can steer the ship back on track with no effort or loss. But while 1% doesn’t make much difference to the short term, taken over long periods of time it can get you hopelessly lost. The later you discover your mistake, the more time and effort it takes to correct it. Moral of the story? Examine your trajectory.
Course correction is what allows you to avoid the iceberg. Recognizing you are headed off track and taking steps to reorient yourself back onto it are less painful things to do than drowning en route. If you noticed the error quickly – perhaps a place you know to avoid, or a toxic acquaintance you’d rather not know- this recovery is painless. If the problem is an assumption you’ve been working with for years – maybe the wrong career, wrong spouse, decisions made to please others who are now dead – the corrective steps are tougher, painful and appear drastic.
In the last few months that I have spent in Lahore, I have had dozens of conversations with as many people about their lives and hopes. After all of them, I was left with an abject, intractable sense of stagnation. The idea that the ships of their lives are on an unchangeable course to a destination they don’t want to go to. It is the inevitability to their journey in their own mind that is the most frustrating for me because that kind of self-defeatist pessimism is contagious, and frankly vastly more troubling than Coronavirus.
Everyone makes mistakes. Even you. Everyone has made a decision in their life that they regret, or that sent them hurtling to an frightening eventuality they felt they had no control over. But sometimes you meet people who are so unhappy in their lives, so empty, that you begin to realize that they never course corrected. Something happened to them – a death, a divorce, a diet – and when face with a choice, they chose to stay on their old course util the iceberg hit them.
I think this happens because self correction requires courage, and the ability to recognize and adapt to failure rather than ignoring it. Most people don’t like to do that. I don’t like to do that. This last two years made it apparent to me that somewhere along the line I began going 1 % off course, and some years later I have woken up to find myself further from my destination than I intended. I was angry about this, but now I’m trying to accept it as a fact of life.
To adapt to this I will have to change not only myself, but also my assumptions about what works. Because the one thing they dont tell you about growing up is that your decisions are not permanent. You have to keep making them everyday. If you are married to someone, you make a choice everyday to remain with them or not. You choose to work, or not work. Decisions that may have made sense five years ago are not guaranteed to be right for today.
Things change, and so should you. I suspect it doesn’t get easier with age. I know 25-year-olds who have been through this many times; I know 90-year-olds who were too scared to have ever tried.
So on this Friday take a moment and see if you are on course. And if not, don’t be afraid to brush yourself off, set a new target, and push Jack’s frigid corpse off the floating door next to you because, as Rose proved, sometimes you get diamonds from life in the most unexpected of ways.