Every year on December 22, the survivors of the infamous Andes plane crash gather to remember their agonizing 72 day ordeal on a glacier. "We celebrate this date as our common birthday," writes one of the survivors, Nando Parrado, "because on this day all of us were reborn."
At first, the reunions were relatively small. Only 16 people survived the crash in the Andes in 1972, a drama that garnered global media attention - especially focused on cannibalism - and spawned the bestselling book Alive and movie by the same name.
This December, when they gather again in Uruguay to celebrate their rebirth, there will more than 100 people in attendance - the original survivors and their growing families. By most accounts, the Andes 16 have lived full and successful lives, building careers, marrying and watching children and grandchildren pour into the world. Their strong bonds and expanding numbers are powerful proof of their spirit of survival and the life lessons they learned in the shadow of death.
Not too far away in Chile, the slow-motion rescue of Los 33 is entering its final hours. Thirty-three trapped Chilean miners will soon experience their own rebirthdays as they are raised 2,000 feet to the surface in a custom-made capsule aptly named Phoenix I.
"No one in history has been trapped underground so long and survived," the Associated Press declares.
Naturally, the question is being asked: How will the 33 fare above ground? What challenges lie ahead? Will their lives ever be the same again?
From comparable survival ordeals around the world, the signs are encouraging. The very resilience and cohesiveness that sustained them through their 69 days underground will be invaluable as they face new and different challenges at sea level.
The Immediate Challenge: Surviving the Media Onslaught
Sure, the miners face a few physical concerns, including protecting their eyes from bright sunlight and the possibility of fungal infections acquired in the humid underground. But those issues should be handled quickly and easily.
The greater challenge is finding some privacy in the days ahead and another kind of rescue capsule to ferry them safely to a (new) normal life.
Long before cable news and the Internet, the "Christmas Miracle" in the Andes created a media circus in Santiago, Chile. "We could not go to a café for a snack, or have a quiet conversation with our families, without a horde of journalists poking microphones at us and firing flashbulbs in our faces," Nando Parrado writes.
Fortunately, Los 33 have been prepared - a little - for the coming onslaught. Last week, they received media training for one hour each day, anticipating "ugly, bad and indiscreet" questions. They are also reportedly finalizing an agreement on sharing equally in the proceeds of publishing, television and movies about their underground ordeal.
Above ground, there are reports that rivalries and jealousies have emerged between families. "Here the tension is higher than down below," says the sister of a miner. "Down there they are calm."
Let's hope the miners can stick together and show the same unity of purpose that they appear to have displayed underground. The same goes for their families.
The Longer Term Challenge: Looking Forward, Not Backward:
One of the biggest surprises in the resilience literature is the fact that most people recover well after experiencing traumatic events. "We concluded that the ceiling for harmful effects is about 30 percent of those exposed," according to George Bonnano, a professor of psychology at Columbia University's Teachers College who studies trauma and resilience. "Most everyone else either recovers quickly or shows great resilience," Bonnano told the Associated Press. "Some people will be deeply psychologically wounded, but most people will not."
Nando Parrado, the Andes survivor, is often asked if he suffers nightmares or flashbacks. "These people are always surprised and sometimes, I suspect, dubious, when I tell them that I have experienced none of those things," he writes in his powerful memoir Miracle in the Andes. "I have lived a happy life since the disaster. I have no guilt or resentments. I look forward to tomorrow, and I always expect the future to be good."
When people inquire how Parrado can be at peace after enduring such horrors, including cannibalism, he writes: "I tell them I am not at peace in spite of what I suffered, but because of it."
This phenomenon is known as posttraumatic growth.
"Most people exposed to the worst traumas do not experience psychiatric disorders," Dr. Lawrence Calhoun told me when I was researching my book The Survivors Club. "They turn out fine," says Dr. Calhoun, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.
While this fact draws scant attention in the media, let alone academia, Dr. Calhoun argues that posttraumatic growth is significantly more prevalent than posttraumatic stress.
In what other ways do people grow from trauma? A significant number of survivors report that their relationships are strengthened by their ordeals, says Dr. Calhoun. They experience greater compassion and sympathy. They feel simultaneously more vulnerable in the world--stronger. Their philosophies of life improve with a shift in priorities as they recognize the precariousness and limits of their time on earth.
This is precisely the kind of change and growth that Nando Parrado describes: "If I had not suffered as I did, and had not been forced to stare death in the face, I would not treasure the simple, precious pleasures of my life as richly as I do."
After the coming media blitz (and inevitable global tours and red carpet premieres), Los 33 will eventually try to return to "normal" life and face the question of what to do with their precious lives.
Most will figure it out and do just fine. Each will celebrate October 13th as his rebirthday. And they will all surely understand - perhaps better than anyone on earth - Nando Parrado's parting words to live by: "Savor your existence. Live every moment. Do not waste a breath."