You are completely alone out in the forest. The nearest town is dozens of miles away. You’ve set up a rudimentary camp with a few key items necessary for survival. In the middle of the night, you are startled awake by the sound of grunting and sniffing that you know can only be a black bear. What would you do?!
The hit reality TV show, Alone, depicts many such cases. The show asks this question: who can survive alone in the wilderness the longest? 10 contestants are dropped off in remote locations with 10 survival items of their choosing and a SATphone which has a big red button - press it and you are “tapping”, which means you are out of the contest and a rescue team will come collect you right away. There’s no camera crew - the contestants film it all themselves. You need to build shelter, find/catch food, drink water, and just live off the land. The last person standing gets $500,000.
Besides the compelling footage of seeing expert survivalists create clever trapping mechanisms and shelters out of forest debris, the show surprisingly gets you thinking philosophically about a number of existential issues.
First, it becomes obvious that the true battle in outlasting the other contestants is in the mind. Once most of the players get settled and in a routine, boredom and yearning for human companionship starts to set in. To lift the scripture a tad out of context, “It is not good for man to be alone.” With each passing day, the survivors vent their increasing desire to just be home with their family and begin to question the wisdom of signing up for the game in the first place. This ubiquitous devolution is a hallmark of the series.
In the midst of these mental gymnastics, some folks claim to “find themselves” and to get clarity on what their priorities in life should be. Even the most skilled outdoorsman can become confronted with his shadow or false self in the course of the game - realizing the only reason he continues to play is his own pride and not wanting to appear like a failure. All he really wants to do is embrace his newborn son, but here he is off galavanting in the woods.
The reality of this inner, mental war, changes the question of the show to “how long would you remove yourself from the people you love most for a shot at half-a-million bucks?”
There’s no guarantee you’ll win - you might spend 2 months away from your kiddos and get nothing except the thrills and doldrums of the experience. After all, there might be someone even crazier than you willing to linger indefinitely in the squalor of their woeful hermitage. What is time with family worth to you? Several folks tap out after coming to terms with their answer.
Another stark message sent by the show and it’s unrelenting winds, waves, and wilds, is that nature is indifferent. Nature doesn’t give a damn about you. To suffer the expectation that it would is nothing but a hangover from pre-modern anthropomorphizing of the physical world. The aphorism “give to nature and she’ll give back” doesn't always hold up. Sometimes you keep trying and trying and you never catch a fish, a rodent doesn’t fall prey to your traps. You get pulled from the game due to the effects of malnutrition. Think of all the brave explorers and denizens of these wilderness lands who met a cruel end having placed their bets all-in on the gratuity of nature and lost everything. The show reminds you that people not that long ago used to live kind of like this, and it’s a sobering reminder that civilization, with all its flaws, is a gift.
One final observation is the impact of having an escape button. At any time you could just quit. Your experience, for whatever reason, could become so unpalatable that you decide to opt-out. This, of course, doesn’t quite map on directly to real-world survival experience - there are some scenarios where no one is coming to the rescue and you need to power-through and persevere. I just wonder how much psychological damage that button does. It didn’t have to be this way. The show could have set up secret cameras to make sure the contestants were safe, but just told them, “Okay, we are dropping you out there for 50 days - are you sure you want to do this?” And then just leave them. If you can’t quit, maybe the desires to see family, have a cheeseburger, and sleep in a warm bed are not as acute. That is, I wonder if people would last a fair bit longer without the big red button. I suspect so. There is a lesson to learn here about human psychology and the cost of leaving outs for yourself.
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