The past few days I have paid a little bit of attention to the suffering of some cruise passengers on a stranded liner who had to deal with raw sewage and generally uncomfortable travel over the course of a few days. For a variety of reasons, without wishing to minimize their discomfort, it is not easy for me to be particularly sympathetic, given that they almost certainly will be given a large amount of comfort from their friends and family once they return home and take a shower or three to wipe off the stench, and will probably receive some credits from the poor hapless cruise company that booked the hellish trip. For all of the difficulties and unpleasant life that they faced for a few days in a ship without power or running water, it is really necessary to put such matters in perspective and understand the silver lining of having such experiences given the sorry state of a large portion of the world.
In the course of my life, I have been fortunate enough to have some knowledge of luxury as well as austere living and even privation. I have learned to be at least philosophical, and perhaps even content, with the varying states of my life, whether they are full of pleasure or suffering. I have learned a lot of lessons and gained a great deal of empathy for others as a result of difficult trials and experiences, and also gained a great deal of pleasure from those moments of luxury. Fortunately, I have neither suffered enough to entirely lose my good-natured personality nor have I been given enough wealth or pleasure to make it impossible for me to relate to others or to feel their suffering as my own. Whether I have dealt with black mold and plumbing problems and housing without running water much of the time and frequent power outages in Ghana, or whether I have relaxed in first class seating on an airplane as the result of a disastrous hurricane that diverted a trip or enjoyed the fine dining on a pleasure cruise to Mexico to see Mayan ruins and a beautiful ecological park in a region of Mexico filled with dire poverty, I have found life full of ups and downs, having gone from the brink of homelessness to having company paid dinner and lodging expenses in relative luxury over the course of a few months.
A large part of the problem is one of expectations. As someone with a great deal of personal and professional interest in questions of logistics, I am aware that ships are of immense importance but are full of vulnerabilities. That does not make me afraid (I do tend to be a bit reckless at times in perhaps overinflating my ability to cope with difficulties and trials that result from putting myself directly in harm’s way, as I am known to do from time to time), but it does temper my expectations of traveling in a floating village where food and power and everything else that makes life enjoyable (be it dance music or a large supply of Corona beers for hours spent in a jacuzzi, as it is for some people) must be self-contained. When things go wrong on the sea, they go very wrong (and the same is true for travel in the air or in space, which are even more vulnerable). When one reflects on the fact that travel in the sea, as well as life for the vast majority of people in the world as well as the life for the vast majority of human history, has been rather uncomfortable and unsanitary and full of privation, we really need to put our prosperity and comfort in some kind of perspective. The pleasures and lifestyle that we enjoy depends on a lot of factors going right, and we cannot take these resources and infrastructure for granted.
The stranded cruise ship made its way back to Mobile, and after some laundry and some showers, the discomfort of the past few days will eventually fade into insignificance, except perhaps as a nightmarish vision of hell for those unfortunate travelers. For many people, though, the experiences of living with raw sewage and no electricity is not a nightmare but is a normal fact of day to day existence, with all the risks in diseases like cholera as well as problems in food preservation and other serious concerns. This does not make that fact any less tragic, but rather it ought to remind us that even those of us like myself who come from modest backgrounds within our civilization live a life of unimaginable luxury to the vast majority of the world. Remembering how privileged I am to have the sort of opportunities I have enjoyed in life for education, the acquisition of a massive library for comparatively little expense, the chances to travel for service and fun and profit, and other related pleasures helps me to avoid feeling envious about the gifts and resources that others have been given. Hopefully the travelers of the stranded cruise line can reflect on such perspective themselves now that they are back on terra firma and safe and sound. Certainly, feeling safe and sound in my own life tends to make it less painful to reflect and meditate on life, and there is always much we have to reflect on, and much we have to be thankful about. Thanks be to God for treating us all better than we deserve.