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Lessons in compassion from Thai cave rescue



It was hard not to be moved, encouraged and impressed by the plight and rescue of the boys marooned in the North Thailand cave. People around the world responded to the boys' youth and the danger they faced and by the generosity and skill displayed in their rescue.

xxxxxI was particularly moved because what I was seeing done for village boys in Thailand was so different from what was appearing in our adult media: bank executives and insurers profiting by imposing misery on their clients; evidence of unethical and extortionate behaviour in so many businesses that it seemed a royal commission into almost any section of corporate behaviour would yield similar results.

In addition to that, the rat run from international agreements and diplomatic conventions and from anything not grounded in crude self-interest, and the snarling, demeaning exchanges characteristic of public life.

All these made it seem that the neoliberal vision of human well being as unregulated competition for wealth, encapsulated in browbreating poor and grieving Indigenous women into taking out unwanted funeral insurance, had captured the minds and hearts of the whole world.

Watched from a distance, the events in Northern Thailand showed that this was not so. They disclosed a mature human response to misfortune and a sophisticated culture. The news that the boys were lost in the cave generated concern and attention throughout Thailand.

These boys were everyone's sons. Volunteers flowed in from all parts of Thailand, offering their labour and their gifts to the people who could rescue them. International volunteers also offered their services, and were welcomed for the skills they brought and incorporated into an international team that worked cooperatively and tirelessly at the risk of their lives. This encapsulated a society working effectively out of compassion.

The Thai coordinators of the rescue also emphasised communal relationships over individual interests. They kept the media informed of the situation and what was being done each day, but kept them away from the cave, the divers and the children. They did not inform the parents that their own child had been rescued until the safety of all was guaranteed, so holding them together in mutual support.


"A deeper Thai cultural strand ran in the story, the counterpart of the emphasis on the competitive individual in the West and in business everywhere."


Then they allowed them to greet their children from behind glass. They also kept the rescued children together in hospital, allowing them to continue to support one another after their ordeal free from intrusive media.

These things could be seen clearly. But a deeper Thai cultural strand ran in the story, the counterpart of the emphasis on the competitive individual in the West and in business everywhere.

Its strength can be gauged when we ponder how the boys apparently emerged undamaged after spending more than a week together in a dark cave, without light, with very little food, without the support of family, and unsure whether their whereabouts would be known or that they would be found alive. That is the stuff of nightmares and of isolation. Yet they seem to have been brought together rather than isolated by the experience.

Their resilience speaks of a strong Buddhist culture in which the boys were used to struggle, found meaning in attending to the welfare of others rather than their own, and drew strength from meditative practices that set their perilous predicament within a broader human horizon.

They were fortunate in their coach. He embodied the best of their culture in foregoing food to keep them nourished, taught them meditation and whom they knew as 'Brother' — naming him at once as one of them, and one whom they would like to emulate. It was characteristic of him that his first message from the cave was to apologise to the parents for the distress the cave expedition had caused, and that he should be the last to be rescued. His thought was consistently for others.

This culture of compassion and of community based on respect was also displayed in the handling of the rescue and the subsequent care for the boys. It spoke most deeply to those of us who watched from a distance.

Events like these are epiphanies that give light and hope in times of darkness. Afterwards we may expect that competitive individuals and media will see a buck to be made out of the boys and their experience. They will try to seduce the boys and their families out of their own culture and then spit them out. We may hope that the example and the values of their admirable coach will persuade the Wild Boars and their families not to sacrifice their cultural horns.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Thailand, caves, Buddhism



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Existing comments

Well said Andrew.

Ginger Meggs | 12 July 2018  

A Navy diver died and is dead and when he died his death was forgotten almost immediately and is still for gotten and then the world says this rescue was a success when the soccer coach should have charges brought against him for leading the boys into danger in the caves.

Len Heggarty | 13 July 2018  

I thought the words regarding the rescue of the Thai boys so poignant, thought provoking & " on the money"- Thankyou

Suzie | 13 July 2018  

Thank you Andrew for reframing this experience in the light of faith and focusing on humanity and the value of being Buddhist in sharp contrast to our more selfish world.

Mary Morrissey | 13 July 2018  

My cynicism receded upon learning of their poor & stateless identities. It is a story of resiliency born of suffering & mindfulness. In an age of intolerance for the outsider, this story of 'holy coincidence' is indeed a story for the ages, a story of resurrection which will outlast the current paradigm of selfish greed. There is no them and us - just us.

Steve Jorgensen | 13 July 2018  

I was profoundly moved by the way that everyone, local and international, including Australians, responded to the dreadful predicament for those young boys and their coach. It cut through the horror of the rest of the world, with the Trumps and others just pushing self interest and aggression. it is possible for goodness to emerge triumphant, rather than behaviour which is about who comes out on top. I felt reassured that we do still know what is right to do, and to care for each other.

Helen Kane | 13 July 2018  

Thank you Fr Andrew for such a beautifully portrayed way of being community in such a life-threatening situation. How blessed people must be to belong to a community where people know and love each other unconditionally in faith and trust. As a person who has become ill these past weeks, and with family living overseas, i know the scourge of isolation and the need for love and care. I hope that when these wonderful compassionate and skilled helpers need care and support in their vulnerability that they will receive it in abundance. Bless them all in these dark times. May their belonging to each other endure.

Mary Tehan | 13 July 2018  

Thank you, Fr Andrew, for a powerful summary of a very important historical event. I hope we all embrace the message you have offered to us. A gentle word to Len: the former Thai SEAL who gave his life to this "impossible" mission must not be forgotten, either in our prayers or in our history books. His death was a tragedy and it actually highlighted the seriousness of the challenges facing the rescuers; the courage of all of the volunteers arose from the reality that they were courting death in their efforts to save the boys and the coach (scarcely more than a boy himself). Like you I wondered whether there would be a case for litigation against the coach, but as I read the story (and I might be wrong) I understand that the coach did not deliberately endanger his charges; he took them into familiar recreational spaces (according to students at one of the schools attended by six of the youngster) but was caught by the weather. I certainly hope he does not suffer any penalty but time alone will tell us that. Meanwhile, let us rejoice at his on-going heroism.

Dennis Sleigh | 13 July 2018  

Absolutely beautifully expressed and representing so well what many of us have felt and are still feeling about this remarkable event. Thank you.

Cypriaan Poulus | 13 July 2018  

Many thanks for your writing over the years, Andy. This article being one of your best.

Pam Connor | 13 July 2018  

Success sure has many fathers and failure is a bastard. Never truer than in this case which grabbed more attention than the simultaneous Japanese floods and their toll on innocent life. The Kingdom Thailand is very aware it has never been conquered. The greeting bow or Wai and Sah wah dee khrap! are potentially respectful, and many layered. Meanwhile the above article and comments show how much people project their feelings, perceptions and impressions on to another person,culture or nation while the facts may be quite different. Even as the rescue was progressing the Thai conclusion was predictable. The potential loss of face and fallout dangerous to tourism were bound to have a 'manage the appearances at all costs' result. It did just that. My experience, hence my slanted view, is that Thais like people to volunteer and are proud of their ability to attract such services but not so good at managing volunteer input nor acknowledgment of same.

Michael D. Breen | 13 July 2018  

A retired navy diver did die Len is mourned and remembered, if not mentioned in Andrew's article this time. A significant point is that the parents didn't say whose fault, but rather thank you Len. Leading the team across a street could be more perilous than entering this cave Len. We are not aware of the events that followed the entry into the cave. I have been in a situation where the tide came in and I was marooned at the base of a cliff. I did not know how far up the cliff the water was going to come. Do we have to know the total risk before we take a walk in what appears to be a benign environment? We have much to learn from the coach in patience, thoughtfulness and the power of meditation.

Ann Long | 13 July 2018  

Thank you Andrew for your usual perceptive and integrative, contextual reflection on the Thai rescue. As a former inhabitant of Thailand, familiar with the Thai culture, I am aware that the monsoon rains are never expected until July so the sudden flooding of the caves would have been unanticipated by the coach. Weather processes there are very different from most of our Australian unpredictable patterns. Whatever the situation (because change is always possible e.g. effects of climate change) the worldwide response and the careful, respectful organisation of the Thai community and international volunteers has much to teach us about the civil respect and positive community values which are apparently fast disappearing in Western societies, as self-serving individualistic opinions, greed, rage, money and fear of the stranger begin to dominate the public sphere. Hopefully, we can live out of this inspiring story in our own local situation and not be cowed by the forcefulness of such negative extremes in our own cultures and discover again our own Christian foundational values. In honouring Sam, the Thai Navy Seal who died giving to his community, the Thais have another hero to join to their long line of historical figures and in true Thai spirit, the young people will be taught not to forget him.

Jacinta RIce | 13 July 2018  

Andrew, your words help us to realize the resurrection power of a Eucharistic community, which this little group of Buddhists certainly was. Thank you.

Joan Seymour | 13 July 2018  

Well said. I would love to hope that our politicians and business leaders read your articles but I fear they simply have hearts of stone and care for nought but themselves.

Leo Farrelly | 13 July 2018  

Len Hegarty, do you actually know that the coach led them into the caves ? Perhaps you’ve missed the whole point of the article ?

Franny | 14 July 2018  

I have told you, Andy, in a comment on another of your articles, that I find them real fruit for thought. You are one of the clerics I would stop to listen to. It is significant that you, without denying your Christian heritage, could see the parallels in Buddhism, another world religion which has recently had a bad press, especially from events in Myanmar. But, as in Christianity, good things are happening in the Buddhist world. Jesus would not, I believe, have seen the Buddha as a total stranger. It is interesting to me that none of the Western rescuers used the opportunity to spruik Christianity. Perhaps they were not formally religious. Christians could then possibly see them as similar to the Good Samaritan Jesus used in that parable to shame his listeners out of any ill founded sense of superiority because of their religious affiliation. The late, saintly Orthodox Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh said that he felt Jesus did not come to found an institution but to save the world. Some commentators on your article miss the point. As Jesus said to the healed paralytic in John 5: 8: 'Rise, take up thy bed, and walk'. We all need to. The rescuers certainly had. They were not carrying any unnecessary mental baggage.

Edward Fido | 14 July 2018  

Len Heggarty, I don't know what media outlets you rely on but every one I saw paid tribute to Saman Gunan. He was incidentally a volunteer, retired from his naval service.Like others from around the world, he knowingly risked his life to make the rescue possible.

Margaret | 15 July 2018  

Something happened in and outside the cave. The boys did not just 'meditate' the way we sometimes understand it in terms of Western psychobabble. They would have also recited sutras and prayed. Their coach had been a Buddhist monk for many years. I saw many Thai monks visiting the scene, and, of course, many ordinary Thais came to provide food and support for the rescuers and the boys' families. Time and time again rescuers commented on the near impossibility of rescuing everyone. Yet it happened. Of course the rescuers: Australians, Americans, Brits and Thais were superb and had the best technical equipment and expertise. One brave man died in the rescue. He has been honoured by the King and will not be forgotten. To me this rescue was a miracle where spirituality, technical expertise and downright human decency all combined. You cannot discount the protective cone put around the largely successful operation by the deep, abiding Thai Buddhist tradition: an immensely practical and deep rooted one.

Edward Fido | 20 July 2018  

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