The Titanic departs Southampton on April 10, 1912.

The quality of mercy is not strain’d;

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:

It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes.

W. Shakespeare, "The Merchant of Venice," circa 1596-1597


Molly Brown of “unsinkable” fame was manning an oar in Lifeboat 6, one of 10 lifeboats, on April 15, 1912, as the ocean liner Titanic began its final descent into the depths of the North Atlantic. And then, as she looked into the near distance, she saw hundreds of victims still clinging to life and crying out for help. She gasped and said, “My God … all the people!”

It moved her to action.

Molly Brown tried to turn Lifeboat 6 toward those still alive in the freezing water and urged others in the boat to help her. She stood and shouted to the coxswain that they must go back and save as many as they could; but he was adamantly opposed. He had calculated that, even though their boat was only half full, to return would run the risk of being capsized by terrified people fighting to climb onboard.

And so, the coxswain shouted back to Molly Brown to be silent and resume her seat or he would have to deal with her. She sat back down; and, as she listened to the desperate pleadings of her fellow man, she began to weep.

Now, I do not know if the coxswain’s decision was based upon a realistic assessment of the situation or based simply upon fear. I do not know if Mrs. Brown’s urgings were practicable. I only know that upon that night 700 people occupied 20 lifeboats designed to hold 1,200. I know that only two lifeboats returned to attempt a rescue while the other 18  kept their distance. And finally, I know that of the 1,500 people who died that night, hundreds died in their lifejackets within sight and calling distance of partially filled lifeboats.

This, of course, begs the biblical question: Are you your brother’s keeper? And, by extension, are you responsible in general for the welfare of other human beings? And, if so, to what extent are you compelled to act?

There are many religions that profess “compassion towards others” as one of their tenets. They espouse the belief that there exists a brotherhood of man, and that all men are due mercy and kindness. I’ve always felt that was a comforting thought; and, if fully implemented, it would transform humanity.

But kindnesses expressed in the warmth and comfort of our churches often recede in the coldness of outside realities. But, there is still hope – always hope.

There will always be some among us who feel the moral compunction to act – to address a grievance – to help the needy – to right a wrong. They are willing to act even if that action means assuming personal risk.

Conversely, there will always be some among us who are averse to assuming any risk – unwilling in matters both large and small. They refuse to enter humanity’s arena and are content to stand on the sidelines merely watching and listening to those who struggle.

And yet, there are still others who must weigh risk against potential benefit and consequence. Their dark and better angels always seem to be in conflict with the outcome in doubt. I suppose for most of us this is actually our reality.

I would like to believe that in most instances our better angels would win out. I would like to believe that; but, in today’s world, I am not quite so certain. Today our moral conscientiousness is threatened by many forces that confuse our sensibilities. These forces prey upon and amplify our fears in order to justify action taken or a lack thereof.

In the final resolution, I would prefer to believe that, like Molly Brown, I would act to help my fellow man. But, in truth, I do not know what I would actually do if confronted by her situation. Perhaps, like so many others, I would just sit passively bye in the lifeboat; but, if I found myself in the water, I would hope someone would reach out a hand to help me into the boat.


Stops Along the Way is an occasional column from Orlean resident Don Bachmann. 

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