“It’s like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”
I think about this phrase a lot; it is both humorously ironic and darkly profound. It’s all about the innocent focusing on the trivial when doom is in store. Of course the people rearranging the deck chairs didn’t know that doom was in store. But we, at an ironic distance, know what will happen to those silly people who quibble about the placement of the chairs or seating arrangements when they should have been staking out the lifeboats.
If you take this line as a metaphor, though, and strive to avoid merely rearranging deck chairs, what activities qualify as worthwhile? Fixing up your house? Buying Spring clothes? Worrying about what you’re going to prepare for a party? Making endless arrangements to get together with friends and loved ones? Reading self-help books? Working out? Taking courses? Staying late to finish up at the office? Taking out the garbage? Learning how to play Bridge?
In essence, everything we do on a daily basis is actually arranging and re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. What is the point of doing anything at all- whether ridiculous or sublime- if the end result is the sinking of our personal Titanics?
Such questions call for the deep reflection of Viktor Frankl: psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor, and existential philosopher.
“Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated, thus, everyone’s task is unique as his specific opportunity.”
So, even if we know that our Titanic will sink, sooner or later, we are responsible for using our time, talents and gifts to make the Titanic a better place and the people on it more content. Our assignment- Life’s assignment- is to make meaning in whatever circumstance we find ourselves. Not to strain the Titanic analogy too far, I could tutor the children on board in reading; help the career challenged find a vocation and a job; start a book group on books about glaciers; offer to help the elderly passengers negotiate the slippery deck; try to enjoy shuffle board; organize a current events group; and yes…rearrange the deck chairs to make it easier for people to talk and visit, so as to build community feeling and cooperation.
And if and when my Titanic sinks, my life will have had deep meaning, though it may have involved nothing more than carefully, systematically, lovingly arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It’s the “how” and the “why” that changes the joke into a statement about the meaning of life.