Michael Pakaluk on the efforts to rescue the Thai soccer team trapped in a flooded cave. Humanity’s need for salvation meets humanity at its best.
May all the Wild Boars be saved! – That is my prayer, joined with those of many others, please God, by the time you read these words it will have been answered.
They are the soccer team of twelve boys and their coach, trapped by monsoon floods in a small chamber, 2.5 miles within a network of caves in northern Thailand. It takes imagination to appreciate their plight.
Caves are pitch-black, with no light whatsoever. Their passageways are not like Luray or Carlsbad, cleaned up and smoothed down for average tourists to stroll through, but more like picking one’s way, up and down, along a rigorous cliff trail.
“Lemon-squeezers” are not uncommon – small cracks that barely let the body through, only if you bend in exactly the right way. Now place the whole scene under cold water with rushing currents. Consider your favorite two-mile cliff walk and picture yourself covering that same distance but swimming, in complete darkness, through narrow passageways, against the current. That’s what it means to get to them or to get them out. Meanwhile, they have been huddled on a small ledge in that small chamber, running out of oxygen.
They could have been any kind of group of boys, but they are a soccer team. This fact may mean little to you or to me. But 40 percent of the world’s population has been watching the Earth’s Greatest Sporting Event these days, a soccer competition called the World Cup.
The boys entered the cave almost exactly when the first World Cup game was played this year. The President of the association that organizes the tournament has invited the Wild Boars to the final game in Moscow on Sunday, if they are able. If you wanted to shine a spotlight of worldwide publicity on their plight, you couldn’t find a better way.
It is part of the Christian conception of providence that such “public” trials do not just happen by accident, but are by design, within God’s plan, and meant to teach. That is why good art (and not so good art) can be based on them: “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” “Into Thin Air,” “The Titanic,” “The Endurance”.
We have Our Lord’s own example for this:
“Those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them – do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” (Lk 13:4-5)
Then what might we learn from the plight Wild Boars, along with our need to repent?
We have creative freedom here. As a philosopher, I am struck by the combination of images – a cave, which is underwater. Many have sensed that life involves some kind of struggle or test. Plato conceived of it as a cave, and philosophical types have since found the image congenial.
Plato’s cave was steep and rugged, not totally dark within, but lit by a fire that cast shadow figures. In principle, you could climb out of it yourself. But a guide made the ascent easier, and you definitely needed to be set free by a guide to start on the journey at all.
Christ could have used the image of a cave, since caves are abundant in the Holy Land. But he pictured salvation instead as a matter of getting rescued from water – pulled out of it like a fish. This is itself interesting.
Caves are inherently inhospitable to life; water is a source of life: a man drowning in water, then, is not where no living being should be, but where no human being should be. Moreover, his rescue will be instantaneous: simply get him above water. Then, he can breathe, and he is in the sun. Any necessary ascent through the water is secondary, since, after all, one can drown in a shallow pond. Besides, time is limited. Thus, a drowning man’s main task is not to struggle upwards, but to stop straining and accept the help of the Fisher of Men.
And yet perhaps many of our contemporaries – maybe (against expectation) the apparently wildest bores among them – are more like that soccer team. They need to be fished out of water, indeed, while, at the same time, they seem to place themselves deeper and deeper into a cave. Their rescue, then, would require a deft combination of faith and reason: both a sacrificial witness of faith, to the point of death, and also the consummate skill that is capable of finding passageways through dark caves.
To me, this is the deepest lesson of the current event. Take Man to be stranded on a shelf inside a cave breeched by floods. The Church must rescue him. Has it thought enough in advance to have its own elite SEAL team? Will it be able to identify those expert “amateurs” who really know how to deal with such circumstances, or will it even want their help, if they come forward on their own to volunteer? It has had apostles like that, including some priests famous in the city where I live. But it needs many more.
There are many other lessons to draw, and I’ll leave them to you, except for this thought. Does the international cooperation surrounding the rescue of the boys teach us anything about human nature?
If humankind were by nature in a war of all against all, then, when an elite Thai naval SEAL team swims 2.5 miles through waters in a cave, in order to rescue, not to eliminate, the group within, it would be acting against human nature: their apparent heroism would be merely the work of convention and threats of punishment for non-compliance.
But this is clearly false, and we like to remind ourselves that it is false. We like the story of the cave rescue because it teaches that military men are, fundamentally, agents of peace, because humankind, despite sin and death, is finally, by nature, at peace.
Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is professor at the Busch School of Business and Economics at The Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD, with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children.
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