Some Spiritual Lessons from the Rescue of the Soccer Boys from the Thai Cave

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U.S. Airmen advising the Thai military in the operation to save the trapped Thai soccer team. Photo courtesy of US Department of Defense.

The world breathed a sigh of relief upon hearing that the first four—and weakest—of the Thai boys were rescued from the cave where they have been trapped for 14 days. Today four more boys have been rescued; tomorrow the rescue is slated for the last four and their coach who, we are told, is himself very weak having shared his meager rations with the kids before himself.

There are deep and perhaps even archetypal lessons in this powerful story which has captured the attention of so many people around the world and brought many people together in the midst of so much chaos and disturbance in the world. Amidst the disunity, unity. I wish to offer a few reflections on these lessons in this essay.

The power of the feminine.
A cave is an archetype of the womb of the Earth (Francis of Assisi loved to pray in caves). A cave is alluring and fascinating—but also dangerous and even deadly. Mother Earth’s beauty is intoxicating but it can also be dangerous; she has her own laws and must be respected—consider Pele now asserting herself in the wild volcanoes exploding in Hawaii, and the monsoons and floods faced by the boys and their coach.

A display of the healthy masculine (for a change).
In the story of the endangered boys and the hard work of the 90 men working to rescue them, we see a rare and refreshing story of the healthy masculine. How many headlines are about the toxic masculine these days: supposedly grown men in powerful positions, denying climate change and fighting gun control; powerful men in business, government, media, religion, etc., etc., raping and abusing women and children. Stories of the head of the EPA changing all the rules so that pollution can proceed unabated (not to mention, also pilfering taxpayer dollars and blatantly disobeying laws not to alter calendar appointments or play footsie with coal, gas and oil lobbyists, etc.); stories of our president and Attorney General executing a plan to separate children and even babies from their parents.

In this story of rescue we see men at their best. Competent, skilled, courageous, generous men sacrificing for the sake of the youngsters. One Thai SEAL even gave his life for the cause. Men tapping into the nobility inside. Men teaching other men (and boys) what authentic masculinity is actually about, what sacred masculine really means. True mentoring and true fathering on display at last.

International cooperation. 
Among the 90 men involved in the rescue, some were from Thailand; others were from the UK, Australia, the US and China. Cooperation. Competence. Professionalism! It was a humane rescue, a human enterprise, not a nationalistic or tribal one.

The usefulness of meditation.
The football coach trapped with the boys is an ex-monk, who instructed the boys in meditation. This became an important dimension to their group survival as it helped them to remain calm during their long ordeal of waiting for rescue in the dark for ten days; of surviving without food; of breathing air that was far below normal richness; and even in finding their way out of the cave in the dark and murky waters with masks to breathe in. In short, in overcoming fear (only some knew how to swim).

A call to shared humanity
Underlying the interest in this rescue are surely universal issues that unite all humans who are in touch with their humanity: our Unity created by our common experience of suffering, hope, and wanting to live; and the work of compassion.

There is a class dimension to this story as well. We are learning that most, if not all of the boys, come from a very poor village and the lower class and some even from the “outcast” class of Thai society. Some are immigrants (yes!) without papers, not legal citizens of Thailand. Yet they are all being treated as human beings worthy of rescue and celebration. So many countries and nationalities and races involved in the rescue.  The rescue is a snub to adultism—which reigns so mightily in much of our culture.

Rite of passage.
Many people talk of the trauma these kids underwent and its likely impact on them afterwards, but I would like to look at this ordeal as a unique rite of passage. First, they are all at the age when rites of passage are usually enacted. They have faced death in isolation with a mentor among them; they have grown up. They have experienced rescue and liberation, even salvation, through older men demonstrating what true adulthood is about, i.e., caring for others. They have also bonded in a deep way; they have learned skills of diving and trusting others; they have experienced how precious life is, how precarious it is. These lessons will remain with them for a lifetime.

I am sure, having faced death for so many days and nights, when they emerged from the cave to experience a full breath of fresh air in their lungs and a bright sun and silver moon and hugs from family and a new perspective on life in this world, they will be inspired as never before not to take life for granted.

The beauty of the human spirit.
Finally, a word about Beauty. I cried on hearing the news of the rescue—not tears of sadness or even joy so much as tears of beauty.  It is a beautiful thing to see humans actually acting like humans. And men actually acting like men. “Are we our brothers’ (and sisters’) keepers?” The news from Thailand answered that question rightly: in these cynical days, when criminal and brutal behavior by men in power seems the norm rather than the exception, the better angels of our nature prevailed.

The struggle is not over and there are many more challenges and struggles to face regarding similar realities all over the world today. But this moment is a good moment. It makes one proud to be a human being again. It is good to see men among other men striving to be good and do the right thing. One gives thanks to the young for bringing the best out in their elders.  Hopefully they can go back to their sports and their biking and hiking and spelunking again soon, go back to being boys. Hopefully the adults too have learned lessons, lessons of hope, cooperation, and caring.  Good work!

Matthew Fox is author of thirty-two books on spirituality and culture including Original BlessingA Spirituality Named CompassionThe Reinvention of WorkLetters to Pope FrancisThe Pope’s War, and most recently Meister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior for Our Times.