Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Camp Hope in Chile: What you can learn about hope from the Chilean miners

What can we learn about hope from the Chilean miners?

As I write this blog, about a billion people around the world are watching the Chilean miners' rescue. As someone who studies hope, I thought it worthwhile to add two separate but related reflections. The first is this; why is the plight of a miner so captivating? Specifically, what does it symbolize and what does it reflect back to us about life and death, about sacrifice and survival? Personally and professionally, I sense there is something especially poignant, perhaps even metaphorical about the plight of a miner. They toil in the dirt and dark for themselves and their families but also for all us who rely on a constant supply of energy to live in the comfort of warmth and light. It goes without saying that their work is risky, both in the short run as this and other mining disasters have shown, and in the long run, in the form of a possibly shortened life that may result from the various diseases that often result from long-term exposure to coal and dust. A miner descends every day into the darkness and hopes to eventually to emerge back into the light. This is the same daily hope journey of anyone who knows the depths of the struggle associated with being a single parent, of confronting cancer, HIV, or another life - threatening illness, of weathering the soul - darkening trauma of abuse, or the searing heat of war or violence.

My second reflection is on the "hope lessons" we might glean from their two month ordeal 2,000 feet below the surface, committed to what some have dubbed, "a long, very long shift". Specifically, I want to reflect on how their behaviors and experiences illuminate the nature of hope, and how this virtue differs from what I call the cult of "optimism and happiness" that has come to dominate so much of psychology over the past decade. In this age of emphasis on "sustainability", I would suggest that hope is the more sustainable emotion, more suitable for all times and all seasons, far more so han "optimism" or "happiness". To be maintained, optimism requires a virtual guarantee of success and is threatened by obstacles and setbacks. Unrealistic optimism can yield "dangerous illusions". Happiness is a fleeting state, easily dampened and equally hard to sustain. Indeed what the late political analyst John Gardner wrote about hope and leadership could also be taken as a clarion call for psychologists [bracketed term is mine].

"[Psychologists] must sustain in their people a hard-bitten morale that mixes our natural optimism with a measure of realism. To sustain hope one need not blind oneself to reality. People need to know the worst - about the evils to be remedied, the injustices to be dealt with, and the catastrophes to be averted....We need to believe in ourselves and the future but not to believe that life is easy. Life is painful and rain falls on the just."

As I have noted in my previous posts, I view hope as a "personal network" constructed from four biopsychosocial assets: mastery or empowerment, attachment resources, survival skills, and spirituality. It would be hard to find a better illustration of these hope elements than the behaviors and experiences of the Chilean miners. Before I conclude with these four hope lessons, I want to highlight a few more observations. First, you may have discovered that the makeshift camp around the rescue site was named "camp hope" and not "optimism central" nor "the happy village". A banner erected at the camp was inscribed with the words "Hope can move mountains". The first child of trapped miner Ariel Ticona and his wife, Elizabeth Segovia, was named "hope". Now I turn to some of the specifics.

1. Mastery

Hope is collaborative and associated with empowerment.

The miners quickly organized themselves. One miner was quoted, "Here is where we meet every day, here is where we plan, where we pray," he says. "Here is the meeting room where all of the decisions are made with the involvement of the 33 that are here." Soon they identified within their group, a spiritual leader, a medic and medic's assistant, and a media representative. The firm that hired the miners could not afford to drill them to safety. However, the state owned mining company took on this responsibility. NASA officials offered their expertise on coping with long bouts of isolation and nutritional plans for extreme environments. Politicians and national celebrities were recruited to offer consistent messages of inspiration.

2. Attachment

Hope is about trust, openness, connection, and faith in a continued presence.

Within days of the disaster, family and friends convened a tent city that swelled to more than a thousand people. A food and mail delivery system was developed to send three meals a day along with letters from loved ones. Rescuers asked the men to form eleven groups of three to make sure each miner has two buddies looking out for him. When an iPod was sent down, it was accompanied by a set of speakers and not headphones so they could all listen together. A local politician commented on the "explosion of solidarity" among local businesses and municipalities helping with daily operations.... "Nobody pays for anything here." One miner told the rescue workers "It takes courage to not leave us abandoned. We know everything you've been doing outside."

3. Survival

Hope is about self - regulation and perceived options.

Hopeful of eventual liberation, but before they were able to receive food supplies from the surface, the miners put themselves on a disciplined feeding schedule of small, measured amounts of tuna, cookies, and milk. In preparation for the stress of handling the inevitable media crush when they are freed, the miners received lessons in public speaking. Early in the rescue attempt, the miners became concerned when they heard drilling stop when the first drill broke. But rescuers assured them of a three - fold plan and the availability of larger, faster drills and the establishment of alternative holes. Ccontingency plans were relayed to the miners concerning the rescue of ill or injured miners.

4. Spirituality

Hope rests on faith (religious and/or spiritual).

Every day after lunch, the miners gathered for prayer. One of them created a makeshift chapel. An engineer managed to get 33 copies of the New Testament and two bibles sent to the men to attend to their "spiritual needs". Each bible was personalized with the name of the miner and specific verses were tagged for hope. One miner was especially vocal in expressing his gratitude, "Give thanks to those who sent us the Bibles... [it] gave me so much faith that I will leave here". Chile is predominantly catholic, and some even found "hope" by noting that "33" miners were trapped, the same number, in years, that Jesus is believed to have lived.

More from Anthony Scioli Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Anthony Scioli Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today