Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Oath

Those of you were at Shelter Rock for Rosh Hashanah heard me speak about the Chilean miners who were then still imprisoned beneath the earth and who were at that time only expected to be rescued, if indeed they were going to be rescued at all, towards the end of the year. Partially because I myself suffer from a mild form of claustrophobia but also because it was a story of such compelling human interest, I found myself both horrified and wholly engaged by the story. And, like so many millions of people all over the world, I found myself praying that they would eventually be rescued and that these poor men would somehow find a way to remain healthy of body and spirit until that rescue could take place.

As everybody knows, los treinta y tres are now free and, at that, long before the end of the year. And, just as I knew was going to be the case, I could not take my eyes off the television as they were released one by one from that strange rocket capsule thing that descended so slowly, even (I thought) majestically, into the bowels of the Chilean earth and then returned time and time again bringing one of the miners to the surface, then disgorging him into the daylight. There is a lot to admire in these men—the fact that they seemed so hale and in such good spirits as they emerged from the mine can only mean that they watched over each other well during the months of their unwanted and unwarranted captivity, that they did what it took to safeguard their physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. But the single most surprising detail about the whole episode, at least for me, came when it was revealed that the miners had taken a solemn oath not to reveal anything of what actually happened during the sixty-nine days they were underground and particularly during the first weeks when they were truly desperate and could not really know that they would ever be located, let alone rescued.

This is going to be a challenging oath to keep. For one thing, the miners—none of whom could remotely be described as wealthy and some of whom live very basic lives at what North Americans would easily recognize as the poverty line—these miners who have so little are now being bombarded with offers from a truly endless array of international newspapers, magazines, and television networks eager to buy their stories for however much money it is going to take to get them to speak. And some of those stories could indeed be worth a lot, especially if the interviewee comes up with the kind of sordid details people buy magazines and tune into television shows specifically because they are always hoping to hear! But, at least so far, the oath seems to have been maintained and the men are sticking to their promise not to reveal whatever there is that they took the oath in the first place because they wished to keep private. The world, of course, is somewhere between confused and irritated.

Indeed, to read some of what I’ve seen on the internet in the last few days, you’d think the miners were somehow behaving immorally (or, to say the very least, perversely and in a manner wholly contrary to their own best interests) by refusing to divulge details that, in the end, are their private business in some rarified sense but which the world nonetheless needs and wants to know. Indeed, so unused are we to that kind of reticence in the face of potential profit that some of the sites I’ve seen just lately are referring to the miners as “holding out” for higher offers. That they would negotiate their betrayal of their own promise to each other for even larger sums of money than were first offered—that everybody can understand! But that working men with no great fortunes would decline offers of easy cash merely because they gave their word to each other not to reveal whatever it is they felt was better left undisclosed regarding the behavior of all or some in the very grim early weeks of their subterranean captivity—that seems beyond the ability of people in the media even to fathom, let alone to respect. Who, I can almost hear them asking to themselves, ever heard of people who didn’t want to be paid to tell their story?

A few weeks ago I wrote to you about that poor boy from Rutgers who killed himself after what ought to have been a supremely private moment was not only spied upon by his roommate, but actually broadcast by that roommate over the internet for all to see. As far as I could tell, the world seemed eager to focus that story through the prism of the suicide’s gayness and surely there is that aspect of the story to consider as well. But as much as that story was about a young man unable to come to terms with having his sexual orientation made public, it was also about the violation of his basic right to privacy. I wrote to you about his story in those terms, but now the story of the Chilean miners seems to me in its own way to be about the same issue and so I find myself focusing on it again and wondering what it would take for society to right itself in this specific way and to create a world in which the sense that every individual is entitled to his or her privacy would be the default setting that all would final natural and normal.

I suppose the journalists attempting to bribe the miners to betray their promise to each other are hoping for something more lurid and far more likely to sell newspapers and attract viewers than three dozen men doing daily calisthenics and reading to each other. The fact that religious faith was a key factor in sustaining the miners and that they apparently held daily worship services in the mine is not what the tabloid journalists assigned to the story are hoping to write about! Nor does it seem to compute that the kind of men who asked for Bibles and rosaries to comfort them during their weeks below surface would also be the kind of men who would need to protect each other with the kind of oath of silence they actually took. Indeed, for many the oath itself is a kind of tacit admission of salacious goings-on of the kind of which the men would naturally wish for no one to learn. Why else would they promise so solemnly not to reveal the truth about their time underground?

I myself have no idea what went on, no specific inkling if the men behaved well or poorly (or if some of them did or didn’t). But I find great nobility in their decision to keep the story to themselves and not to sell it to the highest bidder. Despite the fact that that kind of reticence seems to fly against everything modern culture tends to valorize—the quick buck, the fifteen minutes of fame, the possibility of getting a walk-on role in a movie about oneself and one’s entourage, the Oprah interview—it also rests upon a series of suppositions that, as I’ve written to you on many different occasions, I believe moderns have jettisoned far too easily and thoughtlessly.

Sometimes we accidentally, or at least unintentionally, become privy to information about other people that has the potential to shame, to humiliate, or to hold up those other people to ridicule. In our secular Western culture, we have evolved the peculiar notion that there is something almost hypocritical—or, at the very least, peculiar—about keeping such knowledge to ourselves. The miners’ story could serve as a welcome antidote to that strange idea. And, indeed, the example they set for the world with their oath of silence should, I think, be the most meaningful part of their legacy. People do not need to know everything about everything. You are entitled to your privacy even if the things you are attempting to keep private are not the kind of salacious or grossly indecent things that supermarket tabloids would likely feature on their front pages. I dare say that the miners’ oath reflects the fact that not everybody behaved as nobly as they possibly could have in the early days when it was entirely reasonable to think they were not going to survive, that the mine would end up being their tomb. I admire them for choosing to keep secret information that might possibly humiliate or shame any of them. Am I curious what specific kind of poor behavior prompted their promise not to speak? My roots in secular Western culture make me feel almost obligated to be curious. But I really do know better. And I am actually far happier being impressed by the miners’ decision as a group to behave well than being titillated by the details of how one or several of them responded to the hopelessness of those first days of being buried alive by behaving in ways that now, in retrospect, might seem undignified or unworthy. I often joke that the secret to success in the rabbinate is mastering the art of the unexpressed thought. That surely is true (as it is, I suspect, in many other professions as well), but there is a larger truth underlying that jokey thought: that society as a whole is far better served by its members feeling far more nobly called upon to keep still their tongues and to mind their own business than to labor to bring to light every squalid detail about life on earth one can possibly uncover or, even more challengingly, already knows.

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