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A young man plays guitar at the encampment beside the San Jose mine, near the city of Copiapo, 800 km north of Santiago on October 12, 2010.

HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images

The world rejoices for the 33 Chilean miners, whose rescue is well under way, for their own sake and because they are an emblem of human resiliency. Resiliency, more than technology, is at the heart of what has transfixed the world in the rescue. Long before modern technology brought its miracles to the trapped miners - its vitamin-packed gels, its video devices and, finally, its blessed drills, and rescue cage - the men proved their mettle. In 17 days with no contact with the outside world, 33 men shared 660 square feet of living space (plus attached tunnels), and lived on a spoonful of tuna every 48 hours. It was not Lord of the Flies down there.

This is a story that has been told many times in different contexts. It is told by political prisoners who survive long periods of incarceration in inhuman conditions. It is told by those who survived Hitler's death camps, Stalin's gulag or terrible natural disasters. It is the oldest and yet the freshest of all stories, the story of humankind's survival as a species.

Can people who have only a spoonful of tuna every 48 hours be kept alive with poetry, or prayers? Perhaps not. Feed the body first, the spirit second. In a Stalinist labour camp, the late George Faludy of Hungary (and Toronto) gave surreptitious lectures on poetry and philosophy. He later said in a convocation address at the University of Toronto, "Those who died . . . were always the men who had been most determined to survive, those who had concentrated on nothing but food, sleep and warmth . . . I was reluctant to admit the obvious: that delighting in a good poem or discussing Plato's Socratic dialogues could somehow arm the spirit to the point that it could prevent the body's collapse."

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In Chile the miners took care of body and spirit. There were men who performed the necessary specialized roles - a man who had taken a long-ago nursing course gave injections, an electrician rigged up a lighting system, a third man took readings of air quality. But there was also a miner named Victor Zamora, who became the poet of the group. ("Under the earth there is a ray of light, my path, and faith is the last thing that is lost..."). Jose Henriquez led the prayers. Victor Segovia became the chronicler. Initially, that chronicle aimed at telling their families what happened from the Aug. 5 cave-in until the moment they died. It is reminiscent of the Jews trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto burying their detailed accounts of daily life in milk cans in the ground for future generations.

The resiliency of the men deeply affected Chile. "We are fine in the refuge, the 33," said the first note from the group to reach the outside, on the 17th day, and the statement would be worn by their countrymen on countless T-shirts, buoying the nation's spirit. The men's unity became a symbol for a country that has known its share of troubles. President Sebastian Pinera says the country has been changed by the experience, and it will try to "move mountains" to end poverty. Chile could inspire Latin America. And on and on.

Tuna and poetry, meaningful work and prayers, messages of love from family and country - these are enough to keep people alive when they are 600 metres below the Earth's surface, waiting for a rescue they could not be sure would arrive. Until now.

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