If there’s one common thread among quarantine experiences these days, it is the feeling of being stuck inside one’s head. As long as your physical survival is not in immediate danger, there is plenty of space to dwell on the hypothetical world of regrets and what-if scenarios. I, for one, have been languishing for months about a misstep back in April after publicly saying something I now disagree with. The truth is that it’s hard to move on when there is very little to move toward these days. With a shortage of outlets, the mind has little more to do than fester.
No wonder the show Alone is so popular right now. (Season Six is now streaming on Netflix.) Being a survival show, Alone is an ode to physical survival, yes, but also to the mental grind of the hermitic life. Ten contestants are dropped off in the wilderness with ten items of their choosing and the last person to quit brings home half a million dollars. No camera crews (contestants are trained to film themselves) and no outside contact besides irregular medical check-ins. It’s an extrovert’s nightmare to be sure, but the show seems to go one step further in presenting a universal need for companionship. Contestants not only drop out due to broken bones and gastrointestinal illness, but because they get bored or because they miss their families.
One of the immediate takeaways of the show is that survival is not a function of brute force. Within the first couple of episodes, the idea that only the strong survive is completely upended. Stereotypical strong men don’t last as long as you expect them to, whereas contestants of the more slender variety show tremendous fortitude and resolve. In an article from Paste last month, Shane Ryan calls the show “a masterpiece of human psychology,” grappling with how the key to winning is beyond machismo, something much more complex. He writes, “It’s hard to name, being a heady blend of willpower, toughness, and a capacity for suffering, but it’s the mental side of the game that distinguishes the true contenders from the quitters.” In other words, man does not live on brawn alone.
Those who survive for the long haul are required not only to feed their bodies, but to keep their minds occupied amidst the stillness of an indifferent, unforgiving winter landscape. Again, Shane Ryan writes, “You can learn to start a fire, to gather plants and berries, even to hunt and fish, but without a fundamental store of resilience, your brain will become overwhelmed before your body.” In that sense, once you’ve figured out food supply (which, albeit, takes an incredible amount of skill), building a ukulele can be just as useful as making a rabbit snare or fishing lure. It helps explain why so many people have taken up baking sourdough or knitting to pass the time during quarantine.
The meaning of life, it turns out, is not simply to survive. Then again, it also helps explain why so many of us feel like we’re going crazy. We might have enough take-out to live forever, but we never had the fundamental resilience to make it through in the first place.
Another reason why the show is so gripping is that failure is experienced in real time. In almost scripted fashion, any sense of optimism seems to invite tragedy. When someone suggests that they’ve hacked the system or are even feeling hopeful about the coming day, a snared rabbit is stolen by a fox or a lured fish escapes at the last second. In these moments, the contestant has zero time to compose himself or find a silver lining in the situation. When a small mistake is enough to take you out of the game, any misstep warrants a steady stream of curse words. The show’s explicit language is about the same amount coming from my own home these days.
Admittedly, there is something strangely therapeutic about witnessing someone else’s frustration. Rarely do we get to see someone respond honestly to failure. In a fragile mental state (which is my baseline condition these days), my own response to failure and frustration is just as volatile as a contestant in the wilderness. The idea that misery loves company isn’t always linked to schadenfreude. Commiseration is often the gateway to compassion. These days, the only thing that seems to help me cope while raising young kids in a pandemic is not a new life hack or a more effective way to discipline, but another parent saying, “This is really hard.”
The most poignant moments from the show are whenever a contestant decides to tap out via satellite phone. You can usually sense the breakdown coming. A hairline crack in one’s resilience grows and grows until the contestant is lying in a heap outside their makeshift shelter. As Ryan describes it, “They begin to make excuses, to bring up family in a way they hadn’t in the early days, and to talk more and more about the difficulty. They’re dwelling on it, and when that dwelling begins, the end is in sight.” Soon, the contestant makes the call and a rescue boat is immediately seen charging through the waters.
When my wife and I first started watching the show, the rescue boat was a symbol of defeat. We would grimace as the rescue team came to bring the failed survivor back to civilization. “Say it ain’t so!” we cried as a favorite contestant unexpectedly called it quits. Later on, after eventually seeing each contestant at their weakest and most vulnerable (and subsequently developing a genuine, if surface-level, love for them), the boat would become a symbol of relief. For the failed contestant, I hoped that the distant hum of the outboard motor might not only be the sound of defeat, but the end of striving and self-sufficiency; the sound of being rescued. Of course, in the Christian life, surrender and rescue go hand in hand.
While the concept of Alone is pure fantasy for most of us (at best, I would last 12 hours before needing at least a muffin) it is also a condensed, ultra-real version of life. To a degree, we are all alone. We are all on the verge of losing our sanity. And yet, thankfully, we have a Rescuer who saved us long before we ever thought to pull out our satellite phone to call for help. Our Rescuer knows something about the wilderness in both its physical and spiritual form. The Spirit drove him into the wilderness and he was there with the wild animals for forty days (Mk 1:12-13). Forty days might not be as long as the winner of Season Six, but it’s enough to show that Jesus is perfectly capable of surviving in a cold and unforgiving world. It is the wilderness he created after all.
And yet, he chose not to survive, but, instead, laid his life down for many. For that reason, Jesus relates not to the winner of the show, but to the quitters. This news will likely come as swift relief to anyone who feels like they are barely hanging on, or in the throes of crisis or the malaise of quarantine. When you are ready to tap out, he is there. It turns out, he always has been.