2006 William J. Rashkind Memorial Lecture—Human Groups in a Crisis Situation: Real Experience
One day 34 years ago already, my life changed in 5 minutes. I went from feeling annoyed at having missed a day’s stay in Chile playing rugby to being in the middle of the wreck of a plane that had crashed in the icy Andean mountains. All around me was a nightmare. It was hard for me to understand that I was living in a different, terrible, desolate world. The only thing that I could hold onto was myself, and I knew that I could only gain by helping others. I did help all those that my strength allowed me to, but of course that wasn’t enough. It happened day after day during the next months. I felt comforted by my friends still alive and by knowing that I wasn’t alone in the struggle. The talks with the wounded that were thankful for what I did for them…the gratefulness of the team captain… In our community, getting the most basic things became a challenge. A glass of water meant having to melt snow when—and only when—there was sunshine; our bed meant piling up with our legs tight and numb until sleep gave in to our fatigue. I might as well not talk about food. I used to ask God why He was so mean and subjected us to such a way to survive. The wind began to blow at 4:00 in the afternoon, and the mountain trembled with avalanches of snow as soon as the sun went down. It was easy to die; the bodies of our dead friends lying there reminded me of it, and I felt humiliation at not even having the strength to bury them. We fell when trying to walk, we were short of breath, and we got buried in the snow; most important all, we had to save energy because we were drying up like a green branch under the sun that had been cut off from its tree. On the nights when the wind calmed down, I would look up at the sky and see the same “Three Marys” that I had watched so many times from my house as a small boy; it seemed impossible that they were so near and yet so far away, but I could only watch them for a brief moment because the cold was terrible. We lived thinking “maybe tomorrow we shall leave this place”; we survived out of stubbornness. We prayed much, we talked to God, and we were very near to Him. I used to tell Him: “If I have to die, it won’t be because I’m giving up, but let me live a little longer…” After the snow avalanche hit us, instead of feeling sad for the missing ones, we pitied ourselves for having to continue suffering, knowing that we would probably end up dying anyway. From the beginning of the accident, we tried to walk when the snowstorms wouldn’t prevent us from doing it. That’s how we learned that dark glasses save our eyes, that the snow starts to soften in the afternoon, and that one cannot walk with shoes alone. We also learned that wet clothes freeze when the sun goes down and that one cannot get through the night without a sleeping bag. Not knowing where we were, whether it was Chile or Argentina, it became uncertain which way to begin our search. Finally three of us set out walking and achieved a goal that we thought impossible, something that we always dreamed of and prayed would happen. Many people wonder how we did it; we ask ourselves the same question. I felt I was committed to doing something, to somehow contribute to our survival. I was sure that I wasn’t going to be part of a failure. I prayed to God not to make the challenge impossible; I would do the rest. Even as I thought a few steps into the Andes would be useless, I knew that was the best I could do. I learned that when hope weakens, we must keep making the effort for the sake of itself; it’s the only thing that brings spiritual peace, apart from achieving our goals.