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The predicament of the twelve Thai boys trapped two miles into a cave in the rainy season is as gruesome in its horror As It Is gripping in its drama. It’s breathtaking to imagine them after nine days marooned and in despair.
The two British divers, who discovered the boys, didn’t reach them by will-power or luck. It needed relentless attention to detail. It was about years of preparation, careful building of trust, and meticulous recognition of reasonable risk.
Looking back on the climax of the Napoleonic wars, the Duke of Wellington reflected, ‘The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.’ He wasn’t being modest. He was recognising that the credit belonged to the institutions that had formed people of virtue who thrived in the demanding circumstances of war. The same is true of the Thai cave story. The clue to the discovery of the boys by the divers lies not in Thailand but in the training caves of Wales.
The spiritual writer Donald Nicholl tells the story of two friends discussing the tragic death of a young man on an Edinburgh operating table. One said, starkly, ‘I think the surgeon is to blame. He mistook chloroform for ether. I know the man well. He could have become one of the finest surgeons in Europe but he was more interested in golf. That’s how he’s lived his life – enough to get through, but no more. That day in theatre a bit of peripheral knowledge was crucial and he didn't have it. But it wasn't that day that he failed – it was thirty-nine years ago, when he only gave himself half-heartedly to medicine.’
Jesus told a story of five foolish bridesmaids, whose lamp oil ran out when the bridegroom arrived, and five wise bridesmaids, who took with them enough oil for any eventuality. He’s suggesting our character is revealed less by our spontaneous reaction than by our careful preparation.
News stories focus on dramatic acts of heroism or courage. But such moments rest on long years of training. Those years are about learning to take the right things for granted, and developing the skills to do those things when required. A good life isn’t primarily about dramatic acts of selflessness, but more about decades of faithful preparation for the moment of truth.
The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. The battle for the young man’s life was lost on the golf course. The search for the Thai football team was won deep in the training caves of Wales.
Let’s hope that the courage and skill it took to find the lost boys is exceeded by the patience and perseverance it will now take to get them safely out.