For all that was going on in the global village yesterday there was only one story in town: the rescue of all 33 miners from the collapsed San Jose mine in Chile. As the last of “Los 33” emerged above ground from a capsule almost more famous than the one that took the first men to the Moon, the word “miracle” was the only one adequate to describe what had been achieved.
The drama that had begun 69 days earlier, hidden from the eyes of the world and striking the fear of a terrible death into the men, brought the best of human character and ingenuity into play. But, in view of everything that could have gone wrong, divine intervention is a reasonable inference, and certainly one explicitly embraced by some of the men and the families involved. As the irrepressible Mario Sepulveda said, after bounding from captivity: “I was with God and the devil, and I reached out for God. I held onto him and never did I lose the belief that I was going to get out.”
But one does not have to be religious to learn the most obvious lessons of this Chilean saga, which are to do with the resourcefulness that ordinary men and women can show in the most terrifying and oppressive circumstances. The resilience of the 33 is now a matter of national pride.
We hear a lot these days about the need to develop resilience in children. It is a human quality that the typical modern lifestyle seems to sap, leaving increasing numbers of people vulnerable to depression and addictions. People are now expected to buckle under the slightest pressure and a therapeutic industry has burgeoned to take care of them. Everything from having your school burn down to 9/11-style terrorism brings out armies of trauma specialists, as if people had no personal resources for dealing with adversity.
Sometimes this effort goes to ridiculous lengths. Interviewed by the journal Ecopsychology about the “anger” being vented over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, an American psychology professor said recently it was “a way of masking the really unfathomable and profound despair that is just under the surface as we watch this tragedy unfold”. She predicted, according to a press release, “a great deal of chronic depression, withdrawal, and lack of functioning among not only people directly affected by events in the Gulf, but also people nationwide and globally who identify or empathise with their circumstances.” (Emphasis added) Isn’t this just a little over the top?
In contrast to such a pessimistic view of the human psyche, we see that, even before professional services were available to the men in the mine, they had organised themselves and rationed what food they had in the hope that they would be found and help would come. For 17 days they subsisted on a starvation diet, but when a probe from the outside world finally reached them, the message they sent up was a manly and simple one: “We are fine in the shelter, the 33 of us.”
In the first video the bedraggled group sent up to Camp Esperanza they did not break down and beg for faster action to free them but rather thanked their families, the rescuers, President Pinera and God for all they were doing, and cracked jokes. One called a pile of rocks his “box-spring bed”; another pointed to a fellow miner, saying, “This guy doesn’t want to get out of here because then he’ll have to take a shower.”
Of course they were putting on a brave face; of course they would have had terrible fears and times of despair. Some of them got depressed. But theirs were exactly the circumstances in which depression is reasonable, if not inevitable, and in which counselling — which they received — is needed.
With their hopes raised and supplies reaching them through three narrow tubes, the miners refined their routines and living space. They broke into three eight-hour shifts: one for work, one for sleep, one for play. They followed an exercise regime.
“They also assigned themselves duties,” reports CNN. “One miner, an Elvis Presley fan, led the group in sing-alongs. Victor Segovia kept a journal (which doubtless will arrive on a publisher’s desk). And Yonni Barrios’ nursing experience made him the group’s ‘Dr. House,’ so named for the American television show that’s so popular in Chile.”
Their most senior member, 63-year-old Mario Gomez, lost no time in asking for religious statues and set up a shrine where the men could pray. Another request saw 33 tiny Bibles descend. The men were buoyed up by the presence of family members waiting and praying above; one became the father of a newborn child; another knew that time was near for him and his wife.They all sent notes to their families and received notes and pictures back.
Much credit for the order and good spirit which reigned among the subterranean brotherhood goes to their foreman, Luis Alberto Urzua. From the beginning he exercised leadership as he enforced tight rationing of their food, lights and other supplies, and, fittingly, he insisted on being the last to enter the Phoenix rescue capsule. In Urzua we see another human strength that seems to be in short supply in today’s all-care-no-responsibility culture.
Los 33 are ordinary men with their weaknesses and a perhaps typical human tally of mistakes behind them, but they have come through an extraordinary ordeal with dignity, albeit with every ounce of support possible under the circumstances. No doubt it has been a life-changing experience for many, if not all of them. For one it brought the realisation that he should do what his wife had long wanted and solemnise their marriage in church; for another, notoriously, the opposite.
Some may have psychological problems for which they need professional help. But most, one feels confident predicting, will find healing and a new sense of purpose to their lives where they have always found it: in their families, their God, their national and professional pride. To quote Mario Sepulveda again — apropos of speculation on his potential as a media star: “Please don’t treat us like artists (actors?) or show-business figures. I would like you to show me how I am: a miner.”
Indeed, if anything is going to derail the lives of the world’s most famous miners it will be the lure of publicity deals. By postponing a return to normality, media moguls could pose a far greater threat to their mental health than psychotherapists.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.