33 Lives Begin Again in Chile

One by one the 33 Chilean miners were hoisted from their underground lives, into the light of day, the sunglasses over their eyes an apt metaphor for two truths about these men--how much they may need protection from the glare of the spotlight and how little we know about them as individuals.

These men are heroes by accident. Before they were buried, they led lives as far from fame as can be imagined. They toiled taking copper out of the earth. Now, they are symbols of the will to live, the power of camaraderie and the grace of God.

These are far heavier burdens to carry than the heaviest loads of ore they have ever shouldered. They are the kinds of burdens that can make men feel a powerful sense of purpose or a crushing weight of inadequacy. Men can find themselves in the symbolism of their existence or they can lose themselves.

Psychiatrists like myself would hope that facing mortality day after day and night after night would purify men and allow them to focus on the important things in life--like love of family, country and God. But we also know that coming face to face with one's mortality can lead one to feel estranged from loved ones, vulnerable to anxiety and depression and seeking refuge in alcohol or drugs or any manner of diversion.

Does a man who has survived more than two months, thousands of feet underground, go to the movies and feel thankful for the entertainment? Or does he shun recreation? Does going to sleep in the dark in his bedroom comfort him or fill him with foreboding? Does his child's next birthday fill him with gratitude that he is alive to see it or make him dwell morosely on the fact that he nearly was not? Do two months underground cement a man's marriage or convince him he is ultimately, irrevocably, tragically alone in the world?

For each man, the answers will be different. That is the nature of life stories--even the most dramatic of chapters occurs in the context of what has come before it. It matters whether these men faced trauma before. It matters whether they had religious faith or not. It matters whether they had come to see themselves as victims in life or survivors or leaders. It matters whether they feel they distinguished themselves among their brothers these past months. It matters how hearty their nervous systems were--literally how fluid the coupling between neurons in their brains.

One man returns from war and seeks political office. Another returns and starts a business. Another returns and is hobbled by post-traumatic stress disorder and plagued by addiction. Who can know which man is which when troops leave for battle?

No one can know which man is which as these men leave the mine. Their dark glasses do indeed symbolize that. Perhaps, if we imagine our own reflections in those glasses, we can wonder who we would be if trapped beneath the surface of the earth, largely cut off from what we know and love, deprived of the denial of our mortality that allows us to go about our business hour after hour, day after day.

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What do we hold dear in life, after all? What would we be wishing for and thirsting for most on our return from the depths? Why is it so hard at times to embrace those things in the light of day, surrounded by every possibility, with all the air we care to breathe?

Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatry correspondent for Fox News Channel and a New York Times bestselling author. His book, “Living the Truth: Transform Your Life Through the Power of Insight and Honesty” has launched a new self-help movement including www.livingthetruth.com. Dr. Ablow can be reached at info@keithablow.com.