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Elan Vitae


  • Will Amason


The emergency alarm sounded and a red lightbulb at the top of the exit door began flashing. I was waist deep in the rising water of the engine room of a damaged and distressed ship. With me was a man unknown to me but whose panic mirrored mine. Amidst the loud sounds of the ship’s roaring engines, the offensive emergency alarm and the rising cold, dark water, we worked feverishly to remedy the dire situation.

This was the recurring dream that plagued my early childhood around the ages of 4 or 5. During these dreams, the sense of panic and impending doom would swell to an almost unbearable amount before swiftly transitioning to a heavenly scene of a young innocent girl dressed all in white and holding a bouquet of flowers. Her essence was angelic and although she did not speak, her presence felt comforting.

In another instant, I would be transported back to the panic and doom of the sinking ship, then back to the comforting presence of this angelic little girl. This back-and-forth shifting of my awareness happened multiple times until the two scenes seemed to be strobing. It was this strobing effect that would wake me up, drenched in sweat, breathing heavily, and feeling anxious.

By the time I was 10 or 11, this dream began to fade from my memory.

At 16, a road trip with my parents led us to Long Beach, California to tour the Queen Mary, a retired British ocean liner. I was uneasy as we boarded the ship, but by the time we reached the engine room, I was in a full-on panic attack. “I can’t do this!” I yelled, and ran toward the exit of the ship as fast as I could. With my feet back on dry dock, I finally caught my breath and began to reclaim my sense of safety.

At 35, I was tricked by some friends into attending the opening night debut of James Cameron’s epic film, Titanic. The incredibly well-dramatized scenes gave rise to the same anxiety and panic that had plagued me all those years ago when touring the ship. The combination of music, true-to-life sounds and imagery as the ship began taking on water, trapping those below deck behind a gate, was more than I could bear. “I can’t watch any more of this film” I declared in a very loud voice. Within three seconds of my declaration, the film mysteriously froze. My friends chuckled and teased that my declaration had stopped the film. A technician appeared to apologize for the delay but assured the audience that it would be up and running again soon.

Within five minutes, he made good on his promise and at this point in the film, there was a definite tilt to the boat and widespread panic had already ensued. The next shot was that of an engine room filling with water as men tried to seal off the space. Drowning in the intensity of panic in my physical body, I once again stated loudly, “I can’t watch any more of this film.” Within one second, the film mysteriously freezes for a second time. The people in front of me turned around and gave me a dirty look. The film technician once again appeased the audience with a promise to have it back up and running shortly. When the film finally continues to reveal only a more dire situation, my anxiety builds with each passing scene of the movie. Without saying a word, but with total conviction that I was not going to experience one more moment of the movie, I arose from my seat and headed for the exit. The film immediately froze for it’s third and final time. The bewildered technician came out to offer an apology that despite his best efforts, he was not able to get the film operating again. Had I really stopped the film with the intensity of my emotions?

Recently, I was randomly contacted by an old acquaintance with whom I’d had no contact for 30 years. This man had no previous knowledge of my relationship with ships.

His purpose for reaching out was to share a past-life vision he had of me being on the Titanic. He went on to tell me that in that life my name was Charles Joughin, the chief chef employed on the Titanic and one of the few men who survived.

I was skeptical. My mind went back to the recurring childhood dream, teenage panic attack, and the seeming ability to stop a film out of extreme emotional desire. I sat with this information for awhile and began to do some research about Charles Joughin.

To my amazement, he had some notoriety pinned to his survival. He was the only person who went into the freezing ocean that night that survived. It is told that he was the last man to enter the water, riding the ship down like an elevator, not even getting his hair wet as he entered the water. He later testified to having taken several sips of whiskey throughout the ordeal on the ship. Experts suggest that this increased alcohol content in his bloodstream prevented him from freezing to death in the cold Atlantic water, staving off the shock that typically takes over in the first ninety seconds of exposure. He was eventually pulled into a life boat.

Just five days after the Titanic sank, in a powerful demonstration of his positive mindset, Joughin bravely accepted a new post aboard another ocean liner. He later moved on to serve aboard several military vessels, twice more surviving sinking ships before the end of his career.

It doesn’t really matter to me if I was or was not Charles Joughin in another station of identity. What does matter to me is his life story and the lessons it has allowed me to bring into my own. What is the value in revisiting roots that run this deep, this far back? Learning that I may have been Charles Joughin was emotionally transformative. It helped me move from victim to victor by reframing my emotions around that lifelong fear of ships and realizing that with the right mindset I can prevail against all odds.  As the outer world mimics the impending doom like that of a sinking Titanic, one cannot accept defeat and give up if they wish to survive. Proactivity is key and the immediate issues must be addressed without letting the emotional body lose composure. And, a sip of whiskey here and there might just be the key to survival ;)


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