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Second Act

Four Lessons We Can Learn From the Chilean Miners

I’ve never been inside a mine, and I have to confess that I’ve never had much desire to visit one. I feel that way more than ever after watchingCNN’s coverageof the 33 Chilean miners who finally were rescued from a collapsed copper-gold mine after spending a harrowing 69 days trapped under thousands of tons of rock, 2,300 feet underground. Even so, like many other people, I was transfixed by the sight of the haggard but exuberant men being hauled, one by one, to the surface in thePhoenix survival capsulethat Chilean engineers designed with the help of NASA. (As someone who has a hard time lying still in an MRI tube, I get claustrophobic just imagining the 20-minute ride in that container up the narrow shaft drilled by rescuers.)

This all leads me to wonder: Why are we so affected -- and so connected -- to the miners and their ordeal when most of us are paying little attention to the much larger number of people struggling to survive in the aftermath of Pakistan’s recent catastrophic floods, or countless other people in dire situations around the world? Wired.com has athought-provoking essayon that subject that explores the scientific evidence behind something called Identifiable Victim Bias. (That’s an elegant euphemism for the concept, attributed to Joseph Stalin, that one man’s plight is a tragedy, but the plight of a million people is a statistic.)

But there’s more to our fascination than that. As I’ve read the follow-up news accounts about how the miners made it through their ordeal, it occurred to me that perhaps we feel so connected to them because their ordeal is a condensed, super-intense version of the everyday traumas, struggles, fears and uncertainty that many people face in their ordinary lives. Not many of us have ever been trapped in a dark, hellish cavern that could easily become our tomb and had to survive for a time on a daily bottle cap full of tuna juice, not knowing whether anyone knew we were alive or would come to our rescue. But many of us, at one time or another, have faced adversity and challenges that were plenty frightening -- whether it was the prospect of losing everything in business failure, or spending agonizing months at a dying parent’s bedside, or struggling to cope with alcoholism or clinical depression. The Chilean miners’ saga is all of our struggles, writ large, with more drama. And their survival is so uplifting to us because it’s a message that we can survive, too.

Here’s my stab at a few lessons that we can learn from these heroes.

Lesson One: Stay Disciplined. In this Washington Post article, the miners reveal that in the first weeks of their ordeal, most of the men figured they were doomed. But even as they struggled with the crushing realization that they might never see their families again, they didn’t give in to despair. Instead, they concentrated on conserving their energy and stuck to the super-strict food rationing regimen devised by their foreman, Luis Urzua, and made 48 hours’ worth of supplies last until they were able to establish contact with the surface. They weren’t going to give up as long as there was a slim chance to make it back to their loved ones.

Lesson Two: Consensus Succeeds Where Conflict Fails. The miners are as imperfect as the rest of us humans -- they had arguments, tensions and even a few fistfights during their entombment. But for the most part, they found a way to work together. Foreman Urzua told the Post that the men were able to come together because they established a “democracy,” where every issue was put up to a vote and everyone respected the result, even if it was 17-16. There’s no reason that we couldn’t do the same in our families and workplaces.

Lesson Three: Patience, Patience, Patience. It’s hard to imagine how much anxiety and uncertainty the miners must have felt as the rescuers went about the laborious, exacting process of executing the retrieval. But we can all think of situations where we faced a struggle that seemed as if it would never end, whether it was paying off a massive medical school loan or being unemployed and getting turned down again and again for jobs while we watched our savings dwindle. At some point, like the miners, we simply have to have faith that we’re going to get out of the situation alive.

Lesson Four: Put Others First. Let’s face it -- self-aggrandizement, narcissism and an unwillingness to sacrifice are epidemic-level problems in our society. Some of us even imagine self-interest as the fundamental human virtue, as if we’re actually those badly drawn protagonists in anAyn Randnovel. But no matter how desperate all of those miners must have been to get to the surface, they took turns and allowed the rescue to proceed in the orderly fashion that was the only way for it to work. Urzua, the foreman, set the example when he waited for all the other miners to be rescued before he climbed into the capsule for his ride to the surface. Sometimes, the only way to make it through a crisis yourself is to make sure that other people -- whether they’re co-workers, family members, neighbors or even perfect strangers -- make it, too. We could all use more of that spirit.

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