Thursday, July 16, 2020

Alone / Naked and Afraid

Medical bulletin: Kim checked out perfectly on her various scans and tests – no new cancer. Also: I saw a podiatrist, who told me that I have some extra bones in my foot. This confirms what Kim has long suspected, that whoever sent me down here from some distant planet did not have a good set of instructions when they made me.

            Kim and I have been watching two television series, “Alone” and “Naked and Afraid.” In case a few of you don’t know anything about either one, here’s an overview.

            In “Alone,” 10 people, identified as “trained survivalists,” are dropped off separately in some remote location. In the two seasons we watched, the locations were the Canadian Arctic and Patagonia. They are each allowed to take 10 items, usually including such things as an axe, sleeping bag, fire-starting gizmo, primitive fishing gear, and a tarpaulin. There is no camera crew – they are entirely on their own, with no camera crew. They spend their time building their shelters, trying to get food, freezing, and missing home. Whoever lasts the longest without “tapping out” (via radio) wins $500,000. In the two series we watched, the winners lasted about 80 days.

            In “Naked and Afraid,” two strangers, a man and a woman, are dropped off somewhere, usually in the tropics, with no clothes and only one item each can choose to bring – usually a large knife/machete of some kind, and some variation of flint and steel for fire-starting – though one guy from Georgia chose to bring a roll of duct tape. They spend their time starving and dehydrating, dealing with mosquitoes, hiking with bare feet, shivering, and arguing or cooperating. The goal is to last 21 days, at which point they are “extracted.” The camera crew is present but is not supposed to help unless there is a medical emergency.

            Why do we watch these? What do we learn from watching them?

No bleeping way. I did apply to be on “Survivor” and almost made it, but that seems like a visit at a luxury resort compared to either show. Just watch the relentless mosquito attacks, or a starving person swallowing a large live worm or eating a rodent found in the stomach of a recently killed snake, and you’ll see what I mean.

Listen. About half of the time in “Naked and Afraid” the partners have serious problems getting along – despite the nakedness. They may have been paired up in a way that encourages disputes, but even so, the disputes were usually caused by failures in compassionate listening. We construct the meaning of what we hear, a filtered interpretation. When I pledged to a fraternity in college I vowed “to place the best construction on the words and deeds of my brothers.” I’ve expanded “brothers” to include, well, just about everyone. So, make a generous interpretation, even if it seems naïve and in violation of your egotistical needs. Some of the redneck / hippie chick pairings worked out well because folks listened openly. Many of the problems occurred because one of the pair, usually the guy, previously taught wilderness survival and insisted on explaining and leading without really listening. Nobody likes what Kim calls “the teacher syndrome” – term I’ve heard a few times and now can read in Kim’s face.

Don’t get naked. Our own version of “Naked and Afraid” means when I get naked, Kim gets afraid. And I remember what my skin doc told me years ago: “You are over 40; nobody wants to see you with your shirt off.” And that’s just the shirt, and I’m now 35 years older.

Carry matches.

Don’t drink bad water.

Value Connections. About half the people who left early on “Alone” left because they were alone and missed their families, the rest because of some combination of injury, starvation, or total discomfort largely due to cold. I’m an introvert, but need people, even if they aren’t around and we only communicate by phone, email or this blog. I was happy to have the person I love sitting with me watching the show, even if she falls asleep at times. Sartre said, famously, “Hell is other people,” and he is smarter than me, but Hell is also the absence of other people.

Appreciate the natural world. “Alone” emphasized this through the photography and the comments of the contestants, even while struggling to live there, though this appreciation seemed to diminish as starvation set in. “Naked and Afraid,” with its thorny jungles, snakes, swamps and bugs, did not make this point, though I still believe it’s true if you are not starving or pulling thorns out of your feet. At least, it’s true for me watching it on television from the comfort of my couch.

Make something. The contestants on both programs were most successful mentally if they were actively and creatively making things – snares, fish traps, improvements on the shelter, a drum, a chair, shoes. Stop doing that and you lapse into self-pity and homesickness.

Hit “Reset.” The contestants on both programs had to reset their lives to meet their survival challenges, and “reset” here does not mean restoring, with a click, a previous state. In most cases this meant an examination of their values and assumptions, and this was fascinating to watch. Winning was important to most, but as a self-test – “Naked and Afraid” survivors did not receive a prize, and though many of the “Alone” contestants were poor, most did not mention the money.

            The pandemic has given us, despite all the suffering, a chance to decide and live by what is most deeply important to us. Reset, and let’s see how we do. We are in for a longer haul than 21 or 80 days, and we don’t have a good way to “tap out.”

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