If you haven’t heard about the plight of a Thai youth soccer team that unfolded over the last couple of weeks, I say, “Have you been living in a cave?” (Poor pun intended) In are, you missed it, twelve boys, ages 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach found themselves in a heap of trouble while inside a cave. In spite of signs warning about the dangers of the cave complex – especially during monsoon season – there they were doing what boys will do, writing their names on the wall as part of an initiation. The rains, however, failed to check the calendar and came early. The cave began flooding, and the boys were forced to seek refuge deeper inside the underground caverns.
Have you ever done anything that you were warned not to do? Anything? You know – where the warnings are crystal clear, but you barrel ahead anyway. Appropriately enough, one of my earliest memories involves defiance of clear warnings.
One afternoon, around the time that I was four, my mother dropped a glass tea kettle on the kitchen floor. I stood at the carport door anxious to go back inside after playing in the yard. (It was the 70s. Kids played outside even at age four. Don’t judge.) Older and wiser, mother knew the danger. She told me to wait. I didn’t listen.
With the defiant determination that comes with being four, I traipsed myself straight into the kitchen. As to be expected, my little feet were no match for the puddles of water and glass. When I finally came to a rest, I had a gash over my left eye.
Clearly, my situation was of my own doing. I ignored the warnings. Many feel that the Thai boys’ situation was of their own doing. Some have even (secretly or not-so-secretly) thought, “They got themselves into this mess. They can get themselves out.” Except sometimes it isn’t that easy. Sometimes we get ourselves in too deep. We need help. We need to be carried out when our own abilities fail.
The Thai soccer team was literally in too deep. They were nearly two and half miles into the cave complex with their exit route now flooded. It took divers nine days just to find the team. That’s when the real drama began to unfold. How were rescuers going to get the boys and their coach out of this mess?
The world was glued to their plight. What drew everyone in? Why were we all pulling for their safe return?
We’ve All Been There
We’ve all ignored the warnings. We’ve all gotten in over our heads. We all need rescue. We can relate to the quandary in which the boys found themselves – even when our own experiences haven’t involved life or death consequences. The gravity of the boys’ situation clearly upped the stakes, but we’ve all been there.
Too often, the consequences of our own choices send us scrambling deeper into the darkness. Even when we refuse to acknowledge it aloud, we know that we only have ourselves to blame. Yet, we still long for redemption.
When we deserve consequences, we expect mercy. When rescue shouldn’t be ours, we anticipate grace.
We Were Connected
What unfolded over the week or so after discovering the location of the team was nothing short of miraculous. A international team of rescuers, ranging from world-class cave divers to rural Thai farmers to humble laundry workers. From a distance, we held our collective breath. We all inserted ourselves into that rescue team. We lined the escape route with prayer chains and social media support. For a moment, we had a singular mission – get that team out alive.
The odds of this mission succeeding were near impossible. The rescue team first had to prepare the dive route with guide ropes, lights, and extra oxygen tanks. An experienced diver and former Thai Navy Seal, Saman Gunan, lost his life staging the path for the rescue attempt. We all mourned. We connected in the pain of losing Saman, and together we celebrate his selflessness and sacrifice. The world became smaller.
Then, the team had to teach a group of boys, some of whom didn’t even know how to swim, how not only to scuba dive – but how to navigate the dangerous twists and turns of the cave where some openings were approximately 15 inches in diameter. The entire swim/dive had to be executed with complete calm so as not to place the lives of the boys or the lives of the divers escorting them out in any further danger.
Over the course of three days, the rescue team embarked on the daily missions of bringing the soccer team out of the cave. The conditions in the cave fluctuated – oxygen levels dropping and waters rising. We relished in the incremental success. Four boys on day one. Four more on day two. Four boys and their coach on day three. When the last of the divers who had remained in the cave with the boys during the final days of the mission emerged from the cave, we released our collective breath and basked in the joy of defying impossible odds. The world became lighter.
For a moment, we were united in pure elation and awe. Divisions over race, creed, and religion were tossed aside. We were one people, one race – human.
All of the boys and their coach are now being treated in a Thai hospital. The last of the divers and support team have emerged safely.
The cave – that was nearly their tomb – is now empty.
Perhaps, this is the deeper reason the story resonates with so many of us. Everyone will credit someone for the mission’s success. For some, that will be Buddha. For others, it will be the human intellect and superhuman efforts of those directly and indirectly involved. For me, the feel-good story of the decade shadows and even greater feel-good story, the Gospel.
Despite dire warnings, I hunker down in the belly of a cave seeking refuge in the pitch black where shame and guilt obscure the exit route. Time and time again. Yet, my Rescuer lights the passage with mercy. He straps on a tank of grace. He escorts me along the murky path. He stands ever ready to patch up the cuts and scrapes of my stubborn choices. Time and time and time again.
God bless Sgt. Saman Gunan. May eternal rest be grant unto him and let perpetual light shine upon him. Well done, good and faithful servant! Rest in peace, Sir.