Most movies like to show panic in the final moments of Titanic, but that wasn’t really the case… many survivors remarked on the “calm” involved in loading most of the lifeboats, and indeed, in the approach to almost-certain death.
What made them so calm? What could influence a life so much as to greet impending death not with terror but acceptance?
I think two factors were involved, one primal and the other spiritual. Studies have proven that we have one of three reactions to a sudden confrontation of our own demise: we freeze, we panic, or we act. The last group is the one most likely to survive themselves but also the most likely to save someone else at the cost of their own life. (See many news reports on those who covered others during recent shootings as one example of swift, selfless action.) Their shock either doesn’t kick in at all, or it lasts a fraction of a second before their survival instinct kicks in.
The first group is represented by those on board who “denied” the ship was in trouble even when it became evident, and were paralyzed with fear when reality struck. These are the people who death came for, because they did nothing to try and save themselves.
The second group “panicked,” allowing no one to help them; they ran for higher ground, tried to hang onto anything they could, and sometimes contributed to their own demise.
The third group acted, like those who put their wives and children on lifeboats immediately, then threw deck chairs into the ocean so survivors could have something to float on.
Yet, there was a fourth group on board that night: those who acted and then accepted their fate. The ship’s designer, Thomas Andrews, is one example. He assisted where he could and then (according to myth and a few eyewitness reports) retreated to the First Class Smoking Room to await his death. He was fully aware of what was happening, did all he could, and then chose to go inside, where death was certain. Whether he knew he wouldn’t survive in the cold water or didn’t feel right in surviving where so many would die, he calmly approached his own death in the full awareness of what was happening. Was it delayed shock? Or was he simply willing and unafraid to die?
Mr. and Mrs. Straus’ story is similar; he refused to board a lifeboat where other men were not allowed (even though it would have been permitted, considering his age) and she refused to leave him, so the last anyone saw of them were seated on deck chairs. It wasn’t shock; it was a choice… to die.
What makes someone willing to die even when there is a chance they might survive? I think the only way you can be truly confident in death is if you’re at peace with an afterlife, and the behavior of many calm, resolute people on board ship that night tells us not only much about their faith, but also Edwardian society. It was a time when women and children were valued with importance, and men were taught to be honorable; men understood their role as the protector and provider for their families, so of course they wanted their wives and children to survive, even if it meant their own death. It wasn’t chauvinism, it was sacrifice. Honor held men back from saving their own lives at the cost of another’s. Straus’ decision to stay on board was because he didn’t consider his life worth more than that of any other man; he’d lived his life and wasn’t afraid to die.
Many put others before themselves that night, because godly men and women have peace in death. It doesn’t frighten us, because we know no retribution awaits us. Stories have surfaced about faith being shown in action on board the ship as it went down, but as profound and touching as those tales are, I think what goes unsaid reveals the most, not only about the honor and sacrifice of those passengers, but also their faith.