Cruise ships are incubators for suicidal thought.
Last week was my first cruise experience (I took a one day cruise as a teenager, that doesn’t count for anything). The ship, Norwegian Pearl, is a massive floating hotel, home to 2500+ guests, dozens of restaurants, pools, gym, spa, etc. We traveled from Seattle up to Alaska and then back, all in seven days. It was a beautiful gift from my mother-in-law to her children and their families, something we will all treasure forever.
Seven days is a long time to think about jumping overboard.
If you have never taken a cruise, or read accounts of a cruise, it is a special category of leisure that many great writers have explained in beautiful detail. (My favorite being this essay by David Foster Wallace.)
This is not an account of a cruise. It is an account of the reality of death being a step away, on all sides, for hours and days on end. The ocean, so often a distant presence visited now and then, becomes a constant companion on a ship. Endless, swaying, ever-changing in color and texture, the ocean fulfills its historical and mythological destiny as a Siren for the lonely and the forlorn.
It took a day or so before I realized the hypnotic effect the ocean was having on me. Standing by the railing, my brain started imagining the act of jumping, falling, splashing, dying. Just idle thoughts, I told myself, something we all think about when nothing more than a railing and glass separates us from the endless deep.
But, the thoughts keep coming back. Wondering how long I would survive, if my body would be recovered, what it would feel like to jump and hit the cold, hard sea. Would I get sucked under by the ship’s slipstream, bashed to bits against unyielding steel? What would I be able to see under the ocean? In my final moments, would life finally snap into focus?
I am not suicidal by nature, and readers need not worry about me (but thanks!). Yet, I tend to think a lot (as my wife frequently reminds me) and my thoughts tend to roam widely from the mundane to the (somewhat) deep. But, the ocean was like a computer virus infecting my brain, reprogramming it line by line to keep looping back to the invitation below. It was a giant blue green canvas insisting that I paint one final dramatic image on it, one leap into oblivion.
Metaphors about escape from the ship are not lost on me, especially after another trip to the breakfast buffet, but this was something more. The sea, surrounding me and so easily accessible, gave me permission to question everything lurking in the corners of my mind. I was alone on the ship, even with so many people around me, and I could dedicate time to thinking about who I am, what I do, and what I want.
Death is also a metaphor, in this case for change, escape, and even renewal. If all my life is a quest for something new, finding my place, leaving my mark, then being one step away from infinity highlights my internal eternal struggle. I am not done yet, I told myself. There is still so much more to see and do, so many more people to meet and memories to make, so much future yet to be written with my family and friends.
I don’t think, however, I will be taking a cruise again.