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What Can We Learn from Our Experience with the Thai Boys?

Our response opens the door to a new way to bring compassion into our lives.

It’s remarkable how the 12 boys trapped in a cave in Thailand captured worldwide attention. If you’re like me, you eagerly anticipated every new development, checked CNN on your phone by the hour, and reached for the phone first thing in the morning (and sometimes, admittedly, upon waking in the middle of the night). On each new announcement that one more boy was released, across the planet, we collectively gave a sigh of relief. One more boy was out, one more life was saved.

NBT/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Entrance of Tham Luang cave during rescue operations, 26–27 June 2018
Source: NBT/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

What was it that so captivated us? What allowed us to let go so easily of our cultural and political differences, to unite across all boundaries, to hope and pray together that these children would be saved?

It is fascinating that at times like this, everything else drops away. No religious disagreements, no national or cultural arguments, no political squabbles. All of those rate squarely secondary to the survival of these innocent children imprisoned a half mile underground. No one questioned the amount of money that was being spent to free them or what religion they were. The only thing that mattered was securing their safety.

Why? How does it happen that at times like this, we can so readily let go of that which at other times we desperately cling to?

Because at times like this, we recognize what’s truly important — saving a young life. We are face to face with the preciousness and fragility of life, and how everything can turn in one minute – one perhaps momentary decision to explore a cave after a soccer practice can be the difference between life and death. As we saunter through our days as if nothing will ever change and with the misled assumption that things will of course always be just as they are, how can we then remember what’s truly important? How can we keep in our minds that what really matters isn’t how much money we have, or if we got the promotion we desperately deserve, or even whether we’re appreciated by our friends and colleagues. We tend to place so much of our time and energy into these things, forgetting that what truly matters is that we are here, alive, with the incredible opportunity to breathe and take in what each moment has to offer us – our partner whistling while cooking breakfast in the kitchen, the deep yellow of a dandelion, or the aromatic rosemary lining the main street in our town inviting us to stop and breathe in its fragrance before we hurry off to our next meeting. When we pay attention, each moment offers its own unique delight.

What of defending our political and cultural differences? And closer to home, defending ourselves in our disagreements with those in our immediate circle? These arguments seem so unimportant at moments of life and death, but at all other times so critical to our sense of self and well-being. We defend them at all costs. Why? Why is it so important that we “win” our arguments? What is all this justification about?

Underneath our defense often lies our fear – fear of not being recognized for who we are, not being seen, appreciated, and valued. We cry out, “I’m here! See me!” with the ever-present hope that others will hear and value us – and most importantly, appreciate our individuality and our unique self, understand us and accept us for who we are.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this. It is essential that we value differences, diversity, and each other. Yet in order to remember what is most elemental and essential to all of us, we must be able to see beyond these differences as well – as we do so readily at times when the fragility of life is before us.

The fact that we can do this – that our collective hearts burst with compassion for the Thai boys — gives us tremendous hope. We can move past our differences and disagreements, whether these disagreements are on a political and global scale, or in our own household.

How do we go about doing this?

As an initial step, we need to meet our own need for being heard. And if we experience that our requests for being heard are not met with listening ears, as may often be the case, we can give ourselves the support that we long for from others. We can be there for ourselves. We can meet our own need to be heard by recognizing that we do hear ourselves. We can do this be saying to ourselves “I hear you. And I am here for you.” Now this may seem a bit crazy, but as someone once said to me “I always look to others for the affirmation that I need. But I am someone! I can give myself affirmation!”

It may sound strange, but it works. Our psyche responds in the same way to our own voice as it does to the voice of others.

This is the first step in responding to what we need.

We are not suggesting giving up on expressing our needs to others or fighting to make our political views realized. Quite the contrary. Rather, when our own needs are met, our intention is heard as a way to better our planet. When we speak out against injustice, for example, we are coming from a place of clarity, steadiness and a recognition that we are valued, our opinions matter, and we are worthy of being heard. And that’s when people really listen.

Meeting our own needs with compassion allows us to have compassion for others. To be present for others without fear that there won’t be enough to go around, without fear that our needs won’t be met, without fear that we won’t be seen, understood, heard, recognized or appreciated. Self-compassion, defined by Kristin Neff, is treating ourselves with the same love and care that we treat others when we are struggling. And 80% of us are kinder to others than we are to ourselves. Research on self-compassion tells us that those of us who are more self-compassionate are happier, more fulfilled, less stressed, anxious, and depressed than those of us who are less so. It’s a good thing.

The love and hope and unbridled compassion that we felt for the Thai boys is always within us – and can be present in each moment through practicing self-compassion. And what an easier, more fulfilling, and richer life it would then be — for all of us.