Jim Hopkins on current issues
Jim Hopkins is a Herald columnist

Jim Hopkins: A risky life on a tilted deck - it's our secret dream

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The stern of Rena looms high above the camera, leaning in the waiting sea, stacks of containers bent like reeds in a stream. Photo / Katie Cox
The stern of Rena looms high above the camera, leaning in the waiting sea, stacks of containers bent like reeds in a stream. Photo / Katie Cox

"The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them." - Henry David Thoreau

Sometimes, your thoughts just race like dominoes, don't they, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, one after another, whizzing away so quickly you don't know where they're going till they get there.

This time it was some photos that set them off, seven pictures on the Herald website, all taken by Katie Cox - "Amazing images: The stricken Rena up close."

One shows the stern of the ship looming high above the camera, leaning in the waiting sea, stacks of containers bent like reeds in a stream.

Another reveals the Rena's starboard side, swallowed in the bloated swell, waves waiting like a predator to feast on the carcass.

There are two pictures of salvage workers on the Rena. In one, a salvor sits, apparently quite relaxed, on the ship's steep, angled deck, waiting for a chopper to lift him off.

In the other, you see a salvage worker "dwarfed by the towers of dangerously tilting containers".

First, you look. Just look. In awe. Then, unprompted, you imagine. The sounds, the smells, the spray of the sea and the reek of the oil. You think you can feel the way the Rena would grind and flex and shudder every time a big wave hit. You think you can see the darkness in the hull, where they're working on the tanks and where every pounding wave would make the whole ship shake. That's when the dominoes start to fall. Through the ho-hum hum-drum fog, one thing is suddenly clear.

You realise you're envious. Because you're not there. You're not on that bridge. You're not on that boat. And that's the place to be. It's the only place to be. That's the epicentre. It's the nub of the matter, the heart of what it means to be alive.

Now the dominoes are falling quickly. Being is feeling. That's it. Actions do speak louder than words. That's the power of the photo. Thoreau was right, at least in the sense that "quiet desperation" means we never scratch the surface. The mass of men (and women) do "go to the grave with the song still in them". Not because we're silenced. But because most of us choose not to sing. We think it would be too risky. And we don't like risks. We'd rather be safe, although that's the biggest risk of all.

But salvors sing. They must. You couldn't be on the Rena and not be aware of every fibre in your being and every nuance in your world. The edge is no thin thing. It's a universe. And living on it is where we find ourselves. All the rest is flim and flam and timidity stealing our tunes.

More dominoes. Most of the time, life is what we skate over. It's the things we see beneath the everyday ice. And which we prefer to keep there, if we're honest. Thoreau's "quiet desperation" may have got a whole lot noisier or, alternatively, as we've bent the world ever more to our will, been supplanted by comfortable surrender or the pallid fear of things that haven't happened yet, but the effect's the same; an anaesthetised haze, a numbed distance from our own potential.

And most of us prefer it that way. We'd rather stay in our rut than be on the Rena. Yet, it is the only place to be.

No, hang about, the dominoes insist, maybe not. Maybe there's one other place where the intensity's as fierce and that rare sense of being fully alive makes your whole body electric. There'd be every bit as much focus and purpose in the All Black camp. They'll be feeling what the team on the Rena is feeling. They're at the same junction, that precise point where ability and outcome meet and what happens next depends entirely on them.

They share a bond, those salvors and those players, each with nowhere to hide, each knowing it's all down to them, each aware that what they're doing is hugely important, that millions of people care about it and want them to succeed, each acutely aware how desolate the feeling if they fail, each focused on a now and a then and a goal that only they can reach.

And that's it. Surely. That's where you'd want to be. On a tilting deck - because all our decks are, did we but know it - in the zone, on the ball, up with the play, right at the sharp end, discovering once again that risk is our only real reward. If intensity is the essence of us, and it is, then no one in this place now can be feeling that more keenly and sharply than those on the Rena or in the All Black camp. And that's why those are the places we should want to be this week.

If only in the mind. And that's where the dominoes fell.

- NZ Herald

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