The sorrow of modernity is disconnection. Our fear and rage, our crude selfishness and petty narcissism, they are all afflictions of the alienated. We take solace in consumption, in tribalism, and from an accelerating maelstrom of cure-all remedies for an atomised culture. And when all seems lost, most critically because we have given up on each other, the human race surprises you.
Twelve boys and one soccer coach, a former monk, disappear into a cave that could be the stage setting for a dark fairytale from any folklore. There they lodge, if at all, on the very edge of your thoughts; something bad that happened far away to someone else. Hey gimme the remote, the World Cup is on— No way I’m watching Love Island. And then the missing boys and their diminishing hope of rescue are suddenly in your thoughts every day, if not every hour and minute.
What magic finally ignites the fire of our sympathies for them, when we have little to none for so many others who are just as deserving?
Is it that there was hope, even if diminishing, that their fate might not be settled? That deliverance was possible? There is an appeal to the story, compelling and urgent, that can be understood anywhere, by anyone. We all fear the dark. Few of us would not feel the tightening grip of claustrophobia as we ventured deeper into that cave. We can easily imagine that our anxieties would rise to heights of genuine terror on the rising waters in those buried caverns. And they are children; in peril. To feel for them is the human condition.
But I think it is the small, flickering candle light of hope that has drawn us to stare at this drama for much longer than our post-modern serotonin-ravaged monkey minds would normally tolerate. All the best of our humanity is there to see. Our bravery, self-sacrifice, ingenuity, compassion. The dive teams, assembled from all over the world, have already lost one of their number – Thai navy SEAL, Petty Officer First Class Saman Gunan – who died in the dark, cold currents after running out of air while delivering oxygen tanks. The boys’ teacher, himself orphaned at 10 and trained as a monk, is perhaps the weakest of the survivors still trapped at the time of writing, having given up his own food and water to keep the boys alive.
And Elon Musk has built a tiny submarine.
Something terrible has already happened in that flooded cave. But something great and wondrous is also happening. People have come together even as we are flying apart. All the world is there. All the faiths and those with none. Every shade of skin. A Babel’s tower of languages. It feels as though the darkness of the recent past has lifted just a little. The journey out of that cave is dangerous and difficult and it's very possible that not everyone will make it.
But there is hope.
John Birmingham is a columnist for the Brisbane Times. He is also an award winning magazine writer and the author of Leviathan, the Unauthorised Biography of Sydney, which won the National Award for Non-Fiction. He amuses himself in his down time by writing novels which improve with altitude.