Christina Patterson: So who has it in them to be a hero?

What kept the miners going for the first 17 days, existing on the occasional biscuit, was, presumably, the most primal of human instincts: hunger to survive
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The Independent Online

Sometimes it takes a quirk of fate to turn a man into a hero. It takes, for example, a collapsing mine shaft. Seventy days ago, Jorge Galleguillos, Jimmy Sanchez and Mario Gomez were just ordinary working men, if you can call men who spend a big chunk of their waking hours hacking away at rocks half-a-mile underground, in the pitch-black and searing heat, ordinary. And then some rocks collapsed and the men, along with 30 others, were trapped, and it looked as though they were going to join the very long list of people who die every day because their work is dangerous. If they had, they might just have hit the news. Since they didn't, and since a kind of mini dumb waiter managed to send supplies and medicine and cameras down, and letters and news up, they went global.

Assuming all went well last night, it's the triumph-over-tragedy to trump all triumphs-over-tragedy, one that combines a race against time with one of the most daring rescues in history. When the deals and the serial rights kick in, there's rags-to-riches, too and, if the cameras can catch the reunion between Yonni Barrios and his wife, who discovered his 10-year affair when his mistress turned up at the mine calling out his name, maybe even a Jeremy Kyle-style punch-up. It's the Chilean Slumdog Millionaire, a feel-good-fest for a world in need of a pick-me-up (though not, perhaps, for Barrios and his wife).

What kept the miners going, and, for the first 17 days, existing on the occasional biscuit and fiercely rationed sips of milk, and stopped them from slipping into depression, and had them exercising with elastic bands, and, most importantly, supporting each other, was, presumably, that most primal of human instincts: the hunger to survive. They really were all in it together, and decided, during their 70 days of I'm Now A Celeb Get Me Out of Here... to do their first interview together, too. And good luck to them. God only knows what they'll make of the circling hordes of hacks who await, and of the no-expense-spared rescue operation which must have made them feel almost as if they weren't that eminently disposable commodity, poor working men, but something really valuable like oil. But we will, no doubt, find out.

We don't know what kept Linda Norgrove going, during the two weeks of her captivity in the hands of Taliban fighters. We still don't know exactly what happened during a rescue mission in which there was no triumph, only tragedy. It looks as though it was the thing that every parent of a soldier dreads, the thing whose euphemistic name only adds to the pain: "friendly fire". But it's pretty clear what kept Linda Norgrove going during her work in Peru, Laos, Kabul and Jalalabad. This was a woman born into relative comfort who devoted her life to people who weren't. She died a heroine, but she was one before.

Most of us are more like the Chilean miners. We get up (in some cases, like mine, with enormous difficulty), we brush our teeth, we eat our breakfast, we put on some clothes. If we have children, we feed them. If we have jobs, we go to work. We hope we do our job OK. We hope we're a good partner, parent, or friend. We're not going to set the world on fire, or at least no one thinks we're going to set the world on fire, until the world does catch fire, or the Tube train we're on catches fire, because some other people who once lived life in the way that we're living our life suddenly decided that we shouldn't. And then some of us, in the dark, among the screams, lead other people, in the dark, among the screams, to safety.

We can't ever know which we'll be: the one who runs away, or the one who offers their body as a shield; the one who gives in to torture or the one who doesn't; the one who kills when starving, or the one who starves. Mostly, we hope to be nice enough, but mostly we do what our peers do. If, for example, we're a middle-class mother who enjoys pontificating on websites, we might well buy our clothes from Boden, serve our family weird vegetables from the farmers' market, whinge about losing our child benefit and post reviews of our latest skiing holiday. If we grew up on a sink estate where almost no one has ever worked, and anyway it's miles away from anywhere, and there isn't any work, then we'll probably have quite a few children, because you've got to do something, and at least there's always sex. And if we grew up black and male on an inner-city estate, we'll probably join a gang, because it's rather hard not to, and we might well end up in prison. We didn't set out to. It's just what happens. (It happened to two of my black friends, and to the brother of another. It hasn't happened to any of my white friends.)

Who knows what it takes for a middle-class girl to turn into a Linda Norgrove, or for parents to work night shifts on a minimum wage when they'd actually be better off on benefits, or for my friend's father, who lost a leg in the factory he worked in, to refuse to apply for disability benefit because someone else "needs it more", or for a young black man to turn his back on the gang members he grew up with, who are as near to a family as he gets?

What it doesn't seem to take is sticks and threats, which is what we mostly offer to our young criminals, and which generally turns them into career criminals and often, after a spell or two in jail, career criminals who are also drug addicts. It's also what we're offering to our poorest people, who may be scared into swapping their benefits for very low-wage labour, which may, if there's low-wage labour for them to do, and if they can, after a lifetime of not doing what someone else tells them to do, work out fine, and may also not.

But what generally seems to work rather better is something called the imagination. It's in your head, in a picture of something that can be different, that that tiny spark ignites into a flame that can turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. It's what Olympic athletes say gets them into "the zone". It's what turns some dribbles of paint into a Matisse, or a bunch of words into War and Peace, or 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds into something that makes you gasp. And it's what enables us to think about what it's like to be somebody else, to make, if we're in a position to, decisions about their lives, and maybe even to put their lives before our own.

We're currently being governed by a charming man whose own imagination has thrown up a picture of a country that appears to be a giant cricket pitch, resounding to cries of "fair play", the cheery whistle of window-cleaners on their way to work, and parents yelling that what they want is a nice secondary school for Chloe, and could they please have it now. And we were being governed by a man who, although he did a great deal to make sure that the kind of classmates Chloe wants to avoid didn't grow up in abject poverty, and rather a lot to make schools for Chloe and her classmates better, couldn't present us with any picture of the country at all.

Today, we hope, we pray, that a bunch of Juans and Josés and Carloses will, after a long wait, see the light. I hope it's as good as their dreams. Because, actually, you can't do anything, or perhaps I mean you can't do anything good, without a few dreams.