It’s becoming increasingly true everyday that history is happening on television. It has been for awhile. My mom can describe, in full detail, the day in 1953 when her school friends and extended family huddled around her television (the only one in the neighborhood) to watch the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Ten years later she and my father watched the funeral of John F Kennedy whose assassination had also been caught on film. Thirty years later my family stayed up all night to watch Princess Diana and Prince Charles’ wedding. At other points in time I’ve awoken at ungodly hours to witness space launches on screen and to drag myself to local Irish pubs to watch World Cup games not yet available for home viewing. This week, however, an entirely new form of history happened on screen and it enthralled me.
Sixty eight days after a cave-in trapped 33 Chilean miners a half mile underground, cameras quietly rolled to bring the world images of the efforts to extricate them. Having followed the story since the miners had been discovered alive (14 days after the collapse), I was anxious to watch these resourceful and determined men be literally lifted out of their three month ordeal. I never expected, however, to become transfixed by the screen.
A bit of background becomes necessary here. I am not a screen person. It’s difficult for me to sit through a 30 minute sitcom and nearly impossible for me to enjoy a movie at home with my family. Being required to watch YouTube videos or to spend more than a cursory 5 minutes on Facebook might send me over the edge. When the 9/11 tragedy occurred I was so filled with sadness and concern that I chose to avoid all photographic images of the event. My imagination was impeding both my waking and my sleep as it was and I knew that further embodiment/clarification of the visions of torment would overwhelm me. I also felt angered by the constant chatter and speculating that turned the story from the victims toward the perpetrators. To this day I have not seen video footage and have only had occasional glances of still images of that terrible event. Since then I have become aware of how much sensationalism and commentary happens around the delivery of information these days. Apparently it is no longer enough to simply present data or images to recipients who can then do with it/them as they wish. Instead, so-called specialists, producers, directors, news anchors, and celebrities all have commentary to add, opinions to share, and hype to convey.
It seems to me that the result of this pontificating is the loss of the stories themselves. We don’t look into the face of the individual who has just lost her family to a tsunami wave. We don’t notice the pain in the eyes of the teenager in Louisiana whose entire community has lived in tents since Katrina. As the first local rain becomes “Storm Watch 2010” and the latest celebrity arrest becomes breaking news we become gradually inoculated to what truly warrants our immediate attention and we stop attending. Our eyes are busy reading the scrolling newsreels on the bottom of the screen, our ears are bombarded with words, words, words, and just when we might actually look beyond the sights and sounds to the people it’s time for a commercial break. It’s sad.
For me the Chilean mine rescue was different. When the effort commenced I couldn’t find a single television channel that was broadcasting live footage without commentary. Online, however, purity revealed itself in CNN’s live feed. A single camera above ground and, later, one below, showed long, lingering shots of the activity. There was no blaring introductory music to announce the end of commercial break because there were no commercial breaks. There were no translators. There were only the sights and sounds of squeaking cables against metal pulleys and hushed comments between focused workers sent digitally to the world, allowing us all to be there, as it truly was. For the next 24 hours I kept the small video image up on my computer screen. I watched it non-stop for a long time late into the still and silent night. One by one the miners were lifted, brought up in a metal cylinder barely big enough to hold some of them. At first the family members and rescue staff were somber and quiet. They almost seemed to be holding their breath as they waited to see of the top of the shaft. By the time the next afternoon had arrived, however, rescue personnel were hollering down to the miners when they were most of the way up and the gathered crowd was cheering and singing as the vessel emerged from its tiny tunnel.
What was so beautiful to me was not only the amazing rescue itself but also the stunning quietness of it all. It felt so respectful. No reporters with microphones waxing wise from their cordoned-off location nearby. No “Bad News Bettys” reporting on the difficult relationships some of these men were returning to. No “experts” telling us what life “must” have been like for those trapped below. Just reality as it was happening. A bunch of men and women above ground working like everything to carry their tasks off without a hitch and 33 miners and 6 rescue workers below ground helping to achieve their own attainment of freedom.
A few days before the retrievals began I heard a reporter hypothesizing that the reason so many of the miners were “vying” for the position of last out of the mine was because they each wanted to hold the record for longest time underground. “This,” I thought, “could only be said by someone who spent the last 68 days above ground, sleeping in a comfortable bed, eating whatever he likes, kissing his kids, and breathing fresh air.” There are others, however, who, in hearing this and not having thought for themselves about the incident, might believe it and even repeat it to their friends and neighbors. I could imagine the interchange, “Did you hear that those crazy miners are all trying to break each other’s records by staying in the longest?”
What I saw in the 24-plus hours of footage told such a different story. Here were men who had found ways of exercising, working in a three shift a day model, and of keeping each other alive in harsh conditions. Here were husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, cousins, and uncles thrown together by their vocation and a geological accident. Submarine and small spacecraft dwellers go through special selection processes and months of rigorous training to learn to handle living in tight quarters with others. These men had no such training and no special supplies. They had themselves and each other. That was it. That was all.
There is so much for us to learn from them and their ordeal. Who in our own daily lives would rise to the role of provision-rationer? Physician? Encourager? How would we respond to a life and death need to share? Would we make it with no privacy and the stench of 33 hot bodies bathrooming, eating, playing, working, and emoting in our shared space? How might we interact with our possessions after living so sparingly? How would we approach our partners, parents, friends if we’d spent the last two months thinking we may never see them again? Would our definition of persistence be the same after fully depending on that trait in those working diligently to devise our rescue plan? How might we be changed if we look into the faces of the people in this story? How might we be changed if we sit in silence and observe and notice and care?
Silence is no longer normal here in the West. It seems, in fact, that we avoid it at all costs. We observe in our voyeuristic and overly-broadcasted world and yet I feel as though we rarely notice. Seeing is different from noticing.
Artist Paul Gauguin once said, “I close my eyes in order to see.” I wish this were true of me more often. It may not always be my eyes that need closing, sometimes it is my ears or my hands or my over-evaluating mind. Sometimes I need just one thing at a time to truly allow me to pay attention. To simply notice. To simply care. To simply see.