Chilean miners bring a lesson for all of us from the bowels of the earth

THOSE who say there is never any good news have been confounded.

The television images of the 33 miners emerging from the cage of the Phoenix into the arms of their families and the Chilean president were profoundly moving. In a world plagued by terrorism, poverty, disease and natural disasters, the pictures of the amazing rescue operation of those trapped in the copper and goldmine will probably go down as this decade’s best loved story.

It’s no wonder the international 24-hour news channels found the story of the men confined to their accidental prison so consuming, many flying their top anchors to report from the site. Every one of us has tried to imagine ourselves in the position of the men trapped below the earth, confined to the same dark place with the same group of people for nearly three months.

How well would we get along with the rest of the innocent inmates? At what point would any one — or all — of them become irritating? How would we cope when there’s no escape? So who didn’t smile when each was finally hoisted back to life? Truly, deep-cast mining is a grim profession and all of us thank our lucky stars that someone else does it instead.

Nevertheless, the synergy of what a determined government, a united people and the support of science and technology from the international community can achieve together was there for all to see. Pulling nearly three dozen men out alive from 700 metres below the earth, 69 days after a rockfall trapped them, will surely go down in history as nothing short of a triumph of the human spirit.

Of course, no one in their right minds would have ever visited the San Jose mining camp normally. But the hordes of reporters, satellite vans and politicians developed an unnerving and almost obsessive interest in the 33 men. Their privacy, whether they like it or not, has been torn to shreds.

A pugnacious media and a garrulous public have ensured we know many of the trapped men’s various secrets: the drug addiction, the alcoholism, the girlfriends and the mistresses. More will be revealed as time goes on. That’s the nature of round-the-clock television: it hunts out any morsel of news that can keep a story spinning.

So while a small country like Chile was able to win over billions of hearts by its determination to recover these very ordinary men, Hollywood could not have scripted a better ending. It was a heartwarming moment when the world cherished human lives no matter how poor and underprivileged they were. But whether the miners will appreciate the tenacious gaze of the media and open discussions about their family secrets remains to be seen.

But will this miracle turn into a personal nightmare for the miners? Is this how modern-day celebrities are created and then ritually disembowelled?

Their whole ordeal has seemed to be so perfectly made for TV, from the point when they were discovered to the way they survived so long, to those exhilarating moments when they finally emerged to shouts of “Chile! Chile! Chile!”

And when they did, we couldn’t help but notice how surprisingly cool they looked. After all those weeks in that stench and dirt and despair, we expected dust-encrusted wretches in need of immediate medical assistance. Instead, out they popped all coiffed and ready for the calendars — with a little help from their corporate sponsors, of course. Razors and shaving cream had been lowered into the mine several days ahead of the rescue, apparently. No wonder then that the entire operation was so picture perfect.

Yet, with stale air and limited rations, they had been kept almost oblivious to whatever efforts were being exerted above ground. Surely they will have each been wondering at different intervals whether they would ever see their loved ones and, quite literally, the light of day, again.

Chilean president Sebastian Pinera, who backed the rescue, reaped immediate political benefit: his popularity in the country has soared. The manner in which the miners were located and in which they were kept nourished, their health parameters monitored as well as the air quality, and finally the breakthrough when Plan B shaft reached them — it was truly an amazing feat.

With similar well-publicised stories in other places, with more disastrous endings — as we have seen in China — the miners could only have wondered, “will the same happen to me?” Chile is only a middle-income, not a super-advanced, nation, after all.

What strengths had they summoned? What reservoirs of faith did they draw from in order to maintain their resolve? What encouraged them to believe there really was light at the end of that tunnel? We can only imagine.

One assumes Los 33 had different religious beliefs, political bents and life perspectives. Trapped underground, they had to learn to tolerate one another, to realise the hard way that no man is an island unto himself. Now, Hollywood beckons and book deals shimmer on the horizon. Will the unity and bonhomie which has bound these miners together last, or will greed and the power of the media break their resolve to give a joint account of their ordeal in that dungeon? Can that spirit of solidarity survive contact with the open air? Only time will tell.

ALREADY the doom-mongers are on hand to tell us the answer is “no”. The so-called psychological experts see not a happy ending but the start of years of post-traumatic stress disorder ahead. According to them, we have witnessed not so much an heroic rescue as a volcanic eruption of repressed emotion from the bowels of the earth. Around the corner, the miners have nothing to look forward to but despondency, divorce, addiction and self-hatred, not to mention mutual back-stabbing. Some really do see the positive in every situation, don’t they?

What’s required, of course, according to this diagnosis, is intensive, never-ending therapy. These are not so much miners as fragile souls on the verge of Valium.

Presumably, if any or all of the miners say that having endured more than two months in a subterranean cauldron they are actually just fine and glad to be alive, that will be taken instead as evidence of deep repression and denial.

These are the same army of professionals who saw fit to control the men’s emotions, even to censor letters from the miners’ families, lest they trigger unhelpful emotions. They always know best, you see. One of the miners had asked his wife during a video link-up: “why don’t you write to me anymore?’ In fact she had been writing every day, but her letters were awaiting ‘psychological approval’.

If the miners cooperated with the regime plotted out for them, they were rewarded; if they refused to give in to their betters, they were punished — no alcohol, no music, no communication. Truly, they were captives in more than one sense of the word. Yet by rebelling against these measures in any way that they could, the miners demonstrated that working together and offering solidarity was a much better route to survival than throwing themselves on the mercies of therapists. There is a lesson there for all of us.

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