Relatives pray as they keep vigil in Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park near Than Luang cave in Chiang Rai province on June 28, 2018 while rescue personnel conduct operation for a missing children's soccer team and their coach. Photo: AFP / Lillian Suwanrumpha

Those of us who have had the privilege of traveling across the world, unless we are particularly obtuse or nationalistic, have had our eyes opened in ways we could not have predicted. Moreover, actually living as an expatriate further alters our vision; we can’t avoid it, even if we (foolishly) wish we could.

This week in Thailand, a nearly unique phenomenon has occurred: Attention has been diverted away from the World Cup. People across the country have been on the edge of their seats, not in the hope of seeing a favorite team’s ball fly past an opponent’s goalkeeper, but of hearing good news about a group of lost youngsters in the country’s far north.

Last Saturday, a troupe of young soccer players hiked with their coach into a cave in Chiang Rai, a province bordering Myanmar and Laos. The cave, called Tham Luang, is quite popular with hikers and explorers because of its depth (its name translates as “Great Cave”). Unfortunately, the dozen young sportsmen and their coach were trapped inside it by a flash flood.

A massive rescue operation is under way, and by the time you read this the boys may have been found. Certainly that is the fervent hope of most, probably all, Thais.

But your humble writer is not a Thai. He is a Canadian expat. And yet when it comes to hope for the safety of the lost boys, we are all in this together.

Those of us in the news business may pretend to be ‘objective,’ and of course it is important to avoid bias in our reporting, but it is a fact that we are affected by the events we cover, or edit, or simply observe. That is only human

Those of us in the news business may pretend to be “objective,” and of course it is important to avoid bias in our reporting, but it is a fact that we are affected by the events we cover, or edit, or simply observe. That is only human, but this natural tendency can actually be more intense for journalists. It is part of their make-up: curious, able to access knowledge not easily available to others, often witnessing – or even experiencing – the events behind the headlines.

Do we journalists who live in Thailand care about the deadly “war on drugs” in the Philippines, or the Rohingya crisis that has spilled over from Myanmar into Bangladesh, or the rise of Islamist extremism in Indonesia, or even the family separations on the faraway US-Mexico border? Of course, but we cannot help having stronger feelings about, say, the Thai junta’s failure to restore democracy than, say, the rise of right-wing populism in Europe.

It has been said that there is no greater educator than travel. That may be even more true today than it was back in better economic times, when Western youth could afford to swarm “exotic” destinations such as Asia and Africa. Today, youth live in the “post-truth” environment of modern corporate-controlled and politicized media. How sad that so many young folk are either up to their eyeballs in debt and can’t afford a plane ticket to Bangkok or Bangalore or Jakarta or Johannesburg, or are wallowing in consumerist apathy toward a world too complicated to bother thinking about.

True, there is a wealth of information on the Internet, but also a wealth of disinformation. Can watching a YouTube video about the Holocaust substitute for the experience of standing in person on the site of a Nazi death camp or inside Yad Vashem, or can a news clip about the “migrant crisis” in Europe be of equal value to a visit to the sites of Western-financed bombing campaigns, or can an analysis of GDP figures compare to negotiating the sidewalks of the world’s wealthiest cities crowded with homeless? Not all prisons have barred windows. Some have armchairs and wide-screen TVs.

We live in a troubled world; it could get better, it could get worse. Which way it goes will be determined by our capacity for empathy for those in peril – whether from war, from economic injustice, or from just getting trapped in a cave in Thailand’s far north.

David Simmons

David Simmons is a Canadian journalist based in Thailand. He has worked for newspapers and news websites in four countries, three of them in Asia. He holds a bachelor's degree in linguistics from the University of British Columbia and a diploma in journalism from Langara College in Vancouver.