The unfolding drama in Chiang Rai, Thailand, to rescue 12 teenage soccer players and their 25-year-old coach has produced backstories that deserve more attention.
I did wonder, from the beginning, why the boys and their coach entered the cave in the first place. I wondered, too, how they survived the first week, completely cutoff from the outside world.
Even after they were finally found, the boys remained trapped inside because the caverns were filled with water. The boys had to depend on food brought in by divers, but I wondered about their mental health, given how they were completely deprived of natural light, and was amazed to see videos showing the boys in fairly high spirits, even able to crack jokes.
The large media networks provided full coverage of the rescue efforts, with human interest stories, notably letters written by the boys and their parents. They were poignant ones, parents and children more concerned about their loved ones than about themselves, although, as expected, some of the boys did express their anticipation of barbecue and chicken and other food treats.
The most touching exchange, which became the subject of a long discussion on BBC Talk, was between the coach and the parents. A group letter from the parents read: “Please take care of all the children. Don’t blame yourself. We are not mad at you at all. We understand and are rooting for you.”
The coach wrote back: “I want to say thanks for all the support and I want to apologize to the parents.”
The blame game, with people quick to blame problems on other people, is so common throughout the world, including the Philippines. So this graciousness in Thailand, amid an extremely tense crisis, was impressive.
Chiang Rai is home to many hill tribes or indigenous peoples. Could that have made a difference? The videos certainly showed very polite boys, giving the wai (palms together and raised to the forehead, with a bow) before speaking.
Then I found, in smaller online newspapers, the back stories that have not been featured by the large media outfits.
It turns out the boys had gone into the cave on their own to celebrate the birthday of one of the team members. They bought $28 worth of food and drinks, biked to the cave, left their bikes at the entrance and went in to celebrate. Somehow, they lost their way.
Their coach was not with them, and was contacted by anxious parents waiting for their children to come home. The coach found the boys’ bikes at the entrance of the cave and went in to look for the kids. He found the boys, but ended up trapped as well.
The coach—Ekapol Chanthawong, Coach Ake—turns out to be from Burma. He lost his entire family when he was only 10, and is now stateless. Ekapol could relate to the situation of many of the children in Chiang Rai, members of hill tribes and others, refugees from Burma.
So there you have it: The boys survived on the birthday snacks, but not much more physical sustenance. But Coach Ake provided the vital extras to survive. I found several news articles reporting that Ake had spent years in a monastery, which would have included training in meditation. He left the monastery to care for an ailing grandmother.
Inside the cave, Ekapol taught the boys to meditate and, in the language of modern psychology, mindfulness. Those lessons could explain why the boys, teenagers all, could be so calm, something the rescuers noted as well.
The boys’ composure will be life-saving again as rescuers bring the boys out of the cave, through the dark and, in many portions of the cave, under water.
The backstories help us to understand what survival in times of crisis will entail. All those extreme adventure TV programs emphasize adrenaline and aggressiveness to beat other teams. This time around, we see the importance of calmness and kindness for survival of both mind and body.
The backstories help us as well to better appreciate the symbolism in the way the mainstream media has been reporting the rescue: what time each boy was brought out the cave, almost like reporting the time of a child’s birth. The rescue is, certainly, a rebirthing of sorts for them—and, maybe for a few days, for the world.
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