‘The story of [the Holocaust] survivors,’ wrote sociologist William Helmreich, ‘is not a story of remarkable people. It is a story of just how remarkable people can be.’
The same might be said, albeit in a very different context, of the 33 hardy Chilean miners who emerged from Hades this week. It may not quite match the sheer hold-your-breath daring of, say, the Apollo 11 lunar landing, but the rescue of these Chileans – and one Bolivian – will live long in our collective memory as one of humanity’s most daring feats.
Their rescue, of course, would not have been possible without their own extraordinary demonstrations of resilience and courage. Above all else this is a story about the resilience of the human spirit.
In an age where we’re prone to react with a passive ‘ho-hum’ to things that would have seemed awe-inspiring a generation ago – our technology, for example – this story reminds us that our greatest resource is to be found within us and in those around us.
After spending more than two months in a rabbit hole half a mile underground, each of these men has now emerged to a hero’s welcome. The sense of triumph they embody is shared not just by their countrymen but by people of every tribe and nation.
Before now, perhaps the closest we’d come to this sense of global nail-biting was the equally unlikely rescue of three astronauts aboard the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. Tom Hanks turned this into a memorable movie, but no amount of Hollywood magic could match the real-life drama.
I was in my first years at high school when Apollo 13 was forced to abort its moon mission. Yet I still remember the nerve-jangling waiting game as Houston spent six days trying to save three souls from drifting into space.
Had they not been saved, Lovett, Swigert and Haise would have suffocated in the airless and freezing conditions before flying on endlessly into oblivion. That thought alone gripped the imagination; it kept people glued to TV sets and radios.
President Nixon called the first moon landing the single moment in human history where all of humanity came together as one. Apollo 13 provided the same effect. It lacked the larky moonwalks, or the goofing for the camera with a tiny planet earth peering over the horizon in the background. Yet when its crew returned safely to earth, the sense of triumph and relief was just as real.
Glorious failures like the Apollo 13 mission often move us in more potent ways than our collective successes. In literature and drama as is in life, nothing packs more emotional punch than romance, and nothing is more romantic than pathos.
Near failures like the Apollo 13 mission and the Chilean mine collapse also remind us of a truth which will be important to our survival. There’s a fine line between human greatness and disaster and, despite our technological sophistication, it’s a line that often only Providence can draw.
At times, the best we can do is to acknowledge with humility our limitations, then pull together in the determined hope that we might just snatch triumph from defeat. It’s in those moments that we’re most likely to see the truth of the Japanese proverb: ‘adversity makes a jewel of you.’
Only time will tell how their experience will shape each of the individual miners who emerged from the aptly named Phoenix rescue pod into the similarly well-branded Camp Hope.
Hollywood producers are reportedly already signing stars to play in movie epics based on the Atacama desert drama. James Cameron won’t be required to direct, of course; the human drama will sell itself, without help from the CGI or 3D boffins.
Novelists and film-makers will want to explore, as journalists are doing now, what it is within the human species that keeps us going in such dire situations.
I think that perhaps three things kept the miners alive, both physically and psychologically, since they became trapped in August. From other survival stories I’ve read, these seem to apply across the board.
The first is social organization within the group. The full details will doubtless emerge now that the men are free, but they seem to have formed themselves into a clearly defined social structure very early on.
Almost from the beginning of their saga, the men each took on defined work and social roles.
In his book, The Survivors Club, American journalist Ben Sherwood notes that, ‘[In emergency situations] people rarely lose total control and run around mindlessly. Rather, most freeze until they’re told what to do.’
The foreman of the mining shift played a clear leadership role, organising work rosters to keep the men occupied and later to provide back-up for the rescue drilling operation. That early leadership helped to alleviate any sense of panic or despair, providing something approaching normalcy in a very abnormal situation.
Some of the men naturally took on roles that wouldn’t normally have featured in a mining shift. A few even became well-known above ground for the roles they were playing below.
One, a lay evangelist, became the unofficial pastor, leading the men in daily prayers. Another became the group’s diarist, making careful notes about the men were dealing with their predicament. Yet another became the group’s ‘doctor’, running checks on health and wellbeing. There was even a resident journalist, fronting frequent video reports to the world (and throwing in a ‘back-to-you-in-the-studio’ on occasion).
Some of us, alive in the Jurassic era, grew up watching TV series like Gilligan’s Island and M*A*S*H. In these shows, characters were thrown together by a sudden separation from the rest of the world. Individuals quickly took on specific roles which, in one way or another, sustained the rest of the group.
Of course, low-brow comedic art was only imitating life. In real-life rescue situations people need to be given structure and defined responsibility in order to focus beyond the moment and keep hope alive.
The second thing that sustained these miners was a consequence of the first. It was a strong commitment to the group as a whole, with each miner watching out for his comrades.
The Nobel laureate and famed Holocaust campaigner Elie Wiesel once recalled how solidarity among prisoners made a great difference even in Auschwitz. On his arrival, in his mid-teens, a young Pole offered some critical advice: ‘Let there be camaraderie among you. We are all brothers and share the same fate. That is the only way to survive.’
For the Chileans, this not only provided social cohesion and prevented a breakdown in communication; it also left them less time for lonely introspection.
In the two months underground these men doubtless more than a few hours in introverted thought. Will I make it? Am I strong enough to survive? Why is this happening to me? Time alone will tell how deeply entrenched depression may have become in some of their minds, despite today’s outward smiles.
A few of the men have talked about having had religious or spiritual experiences of one form or another. For some, this provided an important point of reference outside of the immediate situation. Yet even for the religious among them, the questions would remain: why me? Why now?
In the face of all this, those group members who especially encouraged and maintained camaraderie deserve a medal. They managed to focus a disparate group of strong-willed individuals on the larger task at hand, one that required all minds to be committed to the common good even in the darkest hours.
As a social commentator, this is part of what fascinates me about this drama: the power of the social group to shape our personal responses and therefore our individual and collective future.
For all the noise we make about the exponential pace of change where technology is concerned, the future is not shaped by technology. Nor is it shaped by events – not even wildcard events like the collapse of a mining shaft.
The future is primarily shaped by human reactions or choices, which are in turn impacted by emotions and cultures. But both emotion and culture are products of social interaction rather than individual ideation or activity.
In emergency situations, social norms can become more not less important to survival – even if those norms have to be redefined. And a sense of responsibility to others is vital to our own individual survival. It’s the way we’re wired.
Finally, for all their strength collectively and individually, these men would not have survived without the sense that people above ground – ‘upstairs’ as they called it – were willing them to live.
The men aboard Apollo 13 shared how important it was to their morale – at times, near as low as it could get – that people back home were rooting for them at every step.
Overt social support is vital to our emotional and mental wellbeing and to our performance within any group enterprise. We are social beings, who feed off the strength that comes from belonging and having our contribution affirmed by others.
There are important leadership lessons to be drawn here, for heads of businesses, political groups, civic authorities and organisations of all kinds.
People can only function at their best and will do so even against awful odds, if they’re aware that what they do and who they are actually matter beyond their front door.
In any enterprise, a wise leader will draw sightlines from every individual’s work to the broader goals of the enterprise – goals that take in more than company pie-charts. Every team member needs to feel that their work is helping to change something for the better beyond their workspace, on the wider stage of human affairs.
Even in the routine of the day-to-day, each of us longs to know that someone out there is rooting for us, willing us to succeed because what we do actually means something to them.
William Helmreich, quoted earlier, travelled across America studying the lives of 170 Holocaust survivors. His conclusion was clear: ‘The survivors were ordinary individuals before the war, chosen by sheer accident of history to bear witness to one of its most awful periods.’
‘The story of the survivors is one of courage and strength, of people who are living proof of the indomitable will of human beings to survive and of their tremendous capacity for hope.’
The survivors of the drama in the Atacama are testament to this, too. They remind us, in the face of the many global challenges ahead, that our greatest resource is the human resource.