Fred Niedner: Out of mistakes and darkness, we find our way
Fred Niedner April 13, 2012 5:32PM
Updated: May 15, 2012 8:04AM
Of all history’s famous mishaps, few have retained such enduring fascination as the Titanic’s sinking a hundred years ago tonight. The stunning loss of 1,500 lives in the north Atlantic’s cold waters soon became a cautionary tale about arrogance, poor planning and faulty design, with a few measures of individual heroism and sacrifice thrown in for good measure.
Lawsuits, survivors’ memoirs and even clichés have helped to keep the story alive. Naive doom-deniers sometimes fiddle while Rome burns. At others they rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.
The White Star Line built the Titanic for $7.5 million. James Cameron spent $200 million making the 1997 box-office hit “Titanic” that eventually grossed $1.8 billion. This month’s television specials, celebratory re-enactment cruises (hopefully without the deadly iceberg), and the 3-D rerelease of Cameron’s film have turned memories of a chilling, terror-filled night into a complex, extraordinarily profitable industry.
For better or worse, we have a knack for converting even our worst mistakes into fun and profit, if not salvation. Having grown up among Christians, I learned early on to call one of history’s darkest-ever moments “Good Friday.” Last week, sitting in church for lengthy periods pondering that mystery, I got to thinking about bread and wine.
Wine had to be an accident. Some ancient housekeeper came upon a forgotten container of fruit that sat too long in the sun, and before dumping the mess took a sip, just for fun. And it was fun — a whole new kind.
Bread, too, I suspect, like the burnt sugar cakes my mom used to bake, has its origins in a series of mishaps. Pounding grain into crude flour sounds intentional, as does mixing it with sweetened milk to make gruel. But eventually a child must have left a bowl in some corner, bacteria invaded, and when someone finally pitched the wretched concoction it landed in the fire. Voila! Sourdough bread.
At some point, a carelessly dropped rabbit haunch must have endured the same fiery ordeal, and soon we no longer ripped fresh flesh off bones like our fellow carnivores, but took to ordering such things medium or medium rare.
Whether the world is better off or worse for Columbus having landed on this side of the planet, when he though he’d found a new passage to India, remains an open question. We all agree, however, that the mold problem Alexander Fleming encountered when he left a petri dish uncovered has proved a history-changing boon and saved countless lives.
Among crimes and misdemeanors I have previously confessed in this space is a youthful fit of arrogance during which I unkindly imitated one of my professors on the way to class one morning. Not until I and my companions reached the classroom building did we realize the subject of this sorry skit had walked close behind and witnessed the whole scene. For weeks thereafter, I studied that teacher’s assignments with more diligence than I’d ever expended on anything.
That penitential trial eventually morphed into a love of that subject, which in turn led to a calling and ultimately a career. I can scarcely imagine having spent my life doing something else, though I sometimes confess to my own students that from one perspective, I’m still paying for my sins.
We can’t restore lost lives or even fix what’s broken when we mess up, often shamefully and sometimes fatally. We move on, however, because we must. In the peculiar mercy that haunts the universe, failure sometimes opens the way to hope. Or as Good Friday’s most notable victim put it, we find our lives by losing them.