Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Chilean Miners: Now Comes the Hard Part

Tonight, 33 Chilean miners are above ground for the first time in 69 days.  For two months, they have been living in a space the size of a one bedroom apartment, communicating via video hookup and receiving food and supplies via a small hole bored from the surface.  Doctors have been monitoring their physical and mental health during their extended ordeal.

As hard as it might be to imagine, getting out of the mine is probably a mixed blessing for these men.  First of all, this situation has caused some unexpected family problems for some of them -- at least one miner's wife was surprised to meet his girlfriend at the camp where family members have been waiting.  Second, the change to their living situation is just as radical going in this direction as it was going in the other direction.  There is going to be an odd type of culture shock.

For the last two months, as awful as the situation has been, the miners have had round the clock support from the surface and, most importantly, from each other.  They have managed to form their own mini-society, dividing up labor, creating shifts, and coming up with their own norms.  Whatever they were going through, they were going through it together.  They may have been miserable, but they knew they weren't alone, and their experiences were common to their group.

Now, they're out.  They're safe.  The uncertainty is over.  You would think that things would be  better for them.  Maybe they are.  But it's not that simple.  First of all, they are moving from being in a group that completely understood what they were experiencing to a group -- their family and community -- that can fundamentally never truly understand.  They're also moving from a context where their needs were everyone's sole focus to a context where they're expected to pay attention to other people.  As much as their family and friends are going to try to give them space, they're going to need to refocus on living, and that isn't going to be easy.

While they were underground, these miners were surviving.  That took up every minute of every day, and they learned to do it well.  But surviving is not the same thing as healing.  69 days ago these men almost died.  That would be traumatic enough.  They've lived with hope but not certainty of rescue for 69 days.  For 69 days, every day, something could go wrong and kill them.  Now, their safety is pretty much guaranteed.  Convincing their minds of that is going to take more than a little while longer.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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