Exactly 35 years ago this Saturday, an horrific and extraordinary chain of events was set in motion high in the Andes above Chile. A small commuter plane carrying 45 people crashed on Friday the 13th of October 1972. For the next two months, a group of survivors of the crash; most of whom were the young members of a Uruguayan rugby team called the "Old Christians," kept themselves alive against all laws of nature, physics, and reason. Like many, you are probably familiar with this story because of its more gruesome details, some of which- namely that the survivors ate the flesh of the dead in order to stay alive- were obsessed over and sensationalized in media for months after the rescue, and then again in the early 1990s when Frank Marshall directed a film called "Alive" (based on Piers Paul Read's book). If you saw the film or read the book, you will recall that one of the primary characters on the mountain was a man named Nando Parrado. Nando himself says in his own book "Miracle in the Andes" (published in 2006) that he was a not a man of any particular leadership skill or quality at the time of the crash, but nonetheless, over the course of the two months following the accident, he emerged as the key figure in the salvation of the other 15 survivors.
Nando was the driving force behind an expedition out of the mountains (which he undertook along with medical student Roberto Canessa) to get the group rescued after 60 days of surviving the freezing temperatures, altitude sickness, a crushing avalanche (which killed eight of their companions in a matter of minutes), starvation, thirst, grief, despair, and the horror of being witness to their own slow deaths. Nando and Roberto walked for 11 days over a 17,000-ft peak and across more than 60 miles of ice, snow, and rock with nothing but the street clothes they had packed for a weekend vacation and the will to live.
When Nando came to SUNY Brockport last month to give a talk to students, he had an audience of more than 1500 (the largest I've seen there by a scale of three times). Before he left the stage, he had been given three standing ovations, each of which lasted well over a minute. I was very fortunate to get to spend some time with Nando after his talk, and he graciously allowed me to ask him anything I wanted to know about his experience in the Andes. After some discussion of things like his relationships with the other survivors, how he has been able to not let the disaster be the most important thing in his life, and what he learned on that mountain about himself and human beings, I came to realize that what was most fascinating to me about Nando was not the tragedy or even that he had had the amazing luck to survive such an ordeal. What is most extraordinary about Nando is that he has taken an experience that might destroy most of us, and instead of defining himself as a victim, he has chosen to use his survival as an opportunity to embrace life fully and to show others how to do that as well. He spends many months traveling each year to talk to audiences all over the world about his experiences. But he doesn't lecture them on "leadership" or "teamwork" or "courage." He talks to them simply and candidly about how he learned that love is the only sane reaction to horror and death. He credits his will to survive- indeed, his survival itself-to his love for his father. It's interesting, because although he always packs the room, I get the feeling that Nando doesn't fully understand why people respond to him the way they do. He perceives that he is made into a hero for his actions (which is probably true in the case of some people), and more powerfully (and correctly) that his story resonates with people because it demonstrates to them that anything can be endured and overcome. But I think the most significant reason that people respond so strongly to Nando is not just because of what he endured, but because he reminds us that even in the most hopeless of situations, we still have a choice. At its core, Nando's story demonstrates that we always have a degree of control over our lives, even if that choice is simply defining the terms under which we die. This phenomenon is much more than hopefulness or optimism; it is the manifestation of human agency. It is the essence of empowerment.
There is a quote from Nando's book where, after being on the mountain for more than two months, enduring the deaths of 29 friends and family members (including his mother and sister), and upon reaching the summit of a 17,000 foot peak in -30 degree temperatures in jeans and sneakers, expecting to see green valleys below, he only sees more peaks and snow-filled valleys for as far as the eye can see. He writes:
I don't know how long I stood there, staring. A minute. Maybe two. I stood motionless until I felt a burning pressure in my lungs, and realized I had forgotten to breathe. I cursed God and raged at the mountains. The truth was before me: for all my striving, all my hopes, all my whispered promises to myself and my father, it would end like this. We would all die in these mountains. We would sink beneath the snow, and ancient silence would fall over us, and our loved ones would never know how hard we had struggled to return to them. In that moment, all my dreams, assumptions, and expectations of life evaporated into the thin Andean air. My love for my father swelled in my heart, and I realized that, despite the hopelessness of my situation, the memory of him filled me with joy. It staggered me. The mountains, for all their power, were not stronger than my attachment to my father. They could not crush my ability to love. I felt a moment of calmness and clarity, and that clarity of mind I discovered a simple, astounding secret: Death has an opposite, but the opposite is not mere living. It is not courage or faith or human will. The opposite of death is love. How had I missed that? How does anyone miss that? Only love can turn mere life into a miracle and draw precious meaning from suffering and fear. For a brief, magical moment, all my fears lifted, and I knew that I would not let death control me. I would walk through the godforsaken country that separated me from my home with love and hope in my heart. I would walk until I had walked all the life out of me, and when I fell, I would die that much closer to my father.
In that moment, when he accepted his own death as inevitable and impending, Nando made what must have seemed to him a tiny choice, but which had enormous consequences. Although he was sure that he would never see home again, he chose to refuse the path of least resistance. Instead of lying down in the snow and waiting for death to come to him (as he had pondered doing on many occasions during those two months), Nando elected to continue walking. He understood in that moment that the fear of death was the real horror. In making that split-second choice to take one more step, to breathe in and out one more time, Nando conquered that fear and discovered a reserve of spiritual resilience that he believes (as I also do) is accessible to everyone. Nando's transformational experience on that summit is not unlike what Buddha or Gandhi or other great spiritual leaders have described. Although he didn't know it at the time, in choosing to continue walking, Nando not only saved his own life and those of 15 other men, but he pulled all of us one step further down the road of human evolution.
Cynthia Boaz is assistant professor of political science and international studies at the State University of New York at Brockport. She is currently working on a book project about leadership in the age of global citizenship.