In Chapter 15 of my book, “Dear Ashley . . .” – A Father’s Reflections and Letters to His Daughter on Life, Love and Hope, I explore the concept of hope in the context of the 2010 Chilean mine disaster that left 33 men trapped beneath nearly ½ mile of rock and debris 2,300 feet below the surface of the Earth for more than 69 days at the San José copper/gold mine in the Atacama Desert near Copiapó, Chile. There are many compelling aspects of the story, including the ingenuity and technology that ultimately led to their rescue, but what is far more intriguing to me is that there was anyone left to rescue, let alone everyone, given that the miners had been trapped for 17 days after the mine collapsed, before those on the surface were first able to bore a narrow shaft to their location that enabled rescuers to provide the miners with the essentials of life (i.e., water, food, etc.) and, later, a vital means of communicating with relatives, loved ones and other supporters on the surface, while engineers worked out the complex details that ultimately would lead to their rescue.
It is particularly intriguing when you consider, among other things that: (1) the 33 men who arrived for work on that fateful day were virtual strangers to one another from wildly disparate backgrounds, who ranged in age from 19 to 64 and in mining experience from veritable novices to those with more than 52 years of service; (2) the men had the benefit of only a 48- to 96-hour emergency supply of food, which reportedly consisted of 15 cans of tuna, scraps of daily-rotting leftovers, some ultra-pasteurized milk and oil-tainted potable water; (3) the temperatures in the mine following the collapse hovered around 100 ̊ F; and (4) the breathable air in the small 500 sq. ft. space that the men occupied, left unreplenished, would not sustain life indefinitely. And yet, in spite of all of this, we know that, within 24 hours of the collapse, these men began working together as a team fixated on a common goal – survival. That they did so, under such extreme stress and with no reasonable basis for believing they would ever get out of the mine alive, is almost inexplicable save for the fact that for all of their dissimilarities, the men had one gift in common – as human beings, each harbored a seed of hope.
For some, that seed of hope had been germinated long before they ever set foot in the mine that August morning, either through life circumstances that demanded its active presence or simply as a by-product of their unwavering faith in God. In others, the seed, though dormant due to their youth, lack of life experience or simply good fortune, likely required only a minimal amount of prodding and encouragement to spring forth into life and begin to take root. Still others almost certainly had long since buried their seeds beneath layers of disappointment, heartache, frustration, rejection, and unfulfilled or shattered dreams. If they had faith, it had long since been displaced by fear or a sense of abandonment. For them, the journey to re-discovering and embracing what was left of their fragile seeds of hope would become a virtual tug-of-war waged between their heart’s fundamental desire to join their fellow miners in believing that a new and brighter tomorrow was waiting just over the horizon and their mind’s eye, whose once-clear view of that horizon had been obscured by what it perceived to be the seemingly never-ending, painful realities of everyday life.
And yet, all achieved their singular, ultimate goal, but not without first establishing a plan, “pathways” if you will, comprised of a series of smaller, more immediately attainable goals. We’ve learned, for example, that they carefully rationed their food (one teaspoon of tuna each, first every 24 hours and then, as their supply dwindled, every 48 hours). They used available lighting (e.g., headlamps, make-shift light bulbs, headlights from vehicles in the vicinity, etc.) sparingly – as a “treat” to boost their spirits and reward themselves. They portioned the limited water they had, until, we’re told, remarkably, they found an underground stream, running off a rock that enabled them to bathe and remain hydrated. They established and adhered to a strict democracy when it came to decision-making – 17 votes carrying the day. Every hour, they honked the horn of one of the vehicles – with varying degrees of confidence that, eventually, they would be heard. They came up with a regimented sleep schedule and “every day, at noon, [they] would pray.”
And so it is with each of us. At some point in our lives, we all encounter the darkness that invariably accompanies a sense that the metaphorical walls are caving in around us – albeit in a much less literal and dramatic way than they did that August morning around our Chilean brothers. The source of the darkness will take many forms, and its intensity and duration will vary greatly from one person to the next. For some, the darkness will emanate from rejection, abandonment, a trust breached, a love or friendship lost. For others, the darkness will be tied to physical or emotional illness, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, a feeling of extreme inadequacy or a traumatic event. At times, the darkness will be temporary, like a morning fog, momentarily engulfing everything in its reach only to burn off hours, days or even weeks later and reveal the magnificence of the landscape beneath. On occasion, however, the darkness will seem impenetrable, all consuming, suffocating. When it does, panic will set in, as it almost certainly did in the hearts and minds of those trapped in the San José mine moments after its walls collapsed. With that panic will come a sense of desperation and helplessness.
I know, because I’ve been in that dark place many times. Even more disturbingly and heartbreakingly, I’ve seen that sense of hopelessness in my daughter’s eyes and heard it in her words, as I have in the eyes and words of countless young women in the death grip of an eating disorder, more times than I care to think about. Like them and countless others, I have flailed about in the darkness, searching for someone or something to serve as a light at the end of what often seems like an endless tunnel. Largely as a result of these experiences (and others), however, I ultimately came to a critical and liberating realization: hope is not a light that waits impatiently for our arrival at the end of that proverbial tunnel. Rather, it is the light within each of us, which, when patiently and properly nurtured, helps to illuminate and penetrate the darkness inside the tunnel so that we can navigate our own way out – one sometimes joyful, often painstaking, but always purposeful step after another.