Learning from History’s Alone

Alone is a fascinating TV show, and it’s a recent obsession for my family. I started watching the show on recommendation from a friend. I expected the kind of mindless television that normally rounded out my day, but what I got was something deeply spiritual and authentic, an uncommon experience for television.

For those who are unfamiliar, the basic premise of Alone is this: ten survival experts are dropped off in a remote location where the weather is terrible and resources are scarce. Each participant is allowed to bring ten survival items, and they are tasked with surviving indefinitely. The participants can leave at any time by calling a rescue team on a satellite phone. The last person to “tap out” wins a half a million dollars.

The contestants are separated by physical barriers, and each is often five or more miles from the nearest person. The contestants are also unaware at any given point how many of their peers remain.

In the opening episodes of each season, the contestants busy themselves with the basics of survival. They trap or fish for food and build a shelter. They hunt for fresh water and gather fire wood. Some build more complex shelters than others. Some build amenities like chairs. And some build tools like boats or fishing rods.

There are no camera crews. The contestants get limited human contact in the form of regular medical screenings. But for most of the time, the contestants are completely isolated.

There is profundity in the survival element of the show. Some contestants go days without food, weeks without animal protein. There’s something surreal about watching a person work with so much effort and cunning to secure a simple fish stew while you are simultaneously and absent-mindedly shoving chips into your face. They break down and cry. They thank the fish for its life, and eat the meat as if it were an expensive steak and not boiled fish. Watching the contestants eat encourages a deep appreciation for the village full of people that are required to make a bag of potato chips. The farmer grows the potatoes. A factory slices, fries, and bags. A driver delivers the bags. A stock boy puts the bags on the shelf, and I buy them. That’s to say nothing of the factories that built the trucks or my car, the pavers that laid the road, etc. We eat without much thought to the effort it takes to secure food, and watching Alone provides some perspective.

But the survival elements, to me, are not what is most profound about the show, it’s the solitude. The first month goes by pretty easily for most of the participants. There’s always one or two that drop out very early, but by and large, a majority can secure food and shelter. But after the initial work of survival is done, boredom sets in, and this is where the show is made.

The cracks begin to form ever so slightly. Contestants may begin talking to themselves or showboating for the camera. The bad weather may force them into their tent for days at a stretch. Left alone with nothing to do but think, the contestants begin to have revelations. They realize the true value of their loved ones. Some are brutally confronted by their inadequacies or past traumas. One contestant during the second season fell to his knees and screamed out for God “to make it end soon.” When he finally quit, he sobbed and groaned in the arms of a producer.

But they fight and stay because of the money, or rather what the money represents. The winner of the first season wanted to buy a house for his parents and pay off his own home. The winner of the second season wanted to be more generous with his children. He wanted to be “the father that says yes.” Another contestant wanted to quit his job that he hated, and he continually worried that his wife would be disappointed in him if he failed to win the prize money.

The show is interesting because it gives us a glimpse into the archetypal journey into the wilderness that was tradition in many native cultures, and even in Christianity:

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

For millennia, solitude in the wilderness was the prescription for a troubled soul. Native cultures went on spirit journeys, fasting for a period of time alone at a sacred site chosen for this purpose. Hell, we even see the vision quest reflected in the hero’s journey when the hero is inevitably separated from the companions. It is solitude that forces the hero to confront the deepest inner demons.

At the center of the spirit journey is the idea that there is something within us that we do not understand. It’s no revelation that we act out things we do not understand. And we can leave those motivations without name because society has plenty of background noise with which we can drown out our deepest suffering.

What is so brilliant about being alone is that it reveals that suffering to us. It forces us to confront ourselves. The television show allows you to experience that in others, and the viewer learns valuable lessons as a result. I would encourage everyone who is taking a deep look at themselves to watch and reflect. There is a lot of substance here if you have eyes to see.

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