So, my 13 year old and I have spent spring break in survival mode, since I’ve had a horrible cold and my oldest daughter is gone for Spring Break. He’s had to shoulder a lot of responsibilities over the past week, cleaning up and cooking breakfast, changing diapers, and helping to keep his autistic sister in line. We’ve still found time, however, to find a new television series to watch– “Out of the Wild.” We finished Season 3, Venezuela, and we’ve started in on Season 2, Alaska.
If you haven’t heard of the show, it’s a Discovery Channel production. They take 9 ordinary-ish people and drop them in the back end of nowhere with only minimal supplies. The “volunteers” have to not only hike their way out through truly awful weather extremes, but find food along the way. Mostly, they starve. When they’re not shown starving, they’re gathering aches and pains from the brutal demands of simple survival. There’s no reward at the end– no million dollar prize or brand new car. All they get is the experience of having made it. Oh, and there’s one little catch– they each have a GPS tracker on them that allows them, individually, to push a button at any time and a rescue helicopter will come pick them up. There’s no penalty if you quit. You just get to go home, back to civilization and hot meals and a roof over your head.
Tonight, we were watching an episode of the Alaskan Experiment (as they called it) where, after days of starving and hiking, the volunteers finally make it to a small cabin that holds a small amount of basic supplies– rice, dried peas, a book of matches, and a pint of whiskey. After they’d settled down for the night, they took turns passing around the bottle of whiskey and taking sips. It didn’t take long for them to get completely giddy and uproarious. Arok didn’t buy it– “There wasn’t enough whiskey in that bottle to even get one of them really drunk!”
I tried to explain that the stress had caused their behavior, but he still wasn’t convinced. Time for me to break out the textbooks– my old cram book for the NCLEX nursing exam. And, yup, right there on page 40– Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
The kid’s smart– it only took him a moment of studying the needs pyramid to understand that the people on the show had been deprived of the very foundation of all our needs. They didn’t have food, they didn’t have a source of warmth, they didn’t have enough rest. Once those very basic needs had been (at least partially) met, then their need for security also was met (people love huts better than sleeping on the ground), then, well presto, their need for belonging needed to be met and they met that need by bonding over sips of whiskey in a secure location. Their laughter was both a reflection of their needs being met and a way for them to reinforce the social bonds that met them. That’s why they didn’t need more than a couple swigs off the bottle to get loud and get happy. Just being safe for the moment was enough.
The interesting part, for me, is watching the survivors as they get deeper into the experience. As they get closer to their goal (civilization), they are also growing weaker and every obstacle begins to seem insurmountable. The darkest hour is, indeed, just before the dawn. Only by helping each other, encouraging each other, and sometimes giving physical assistance to each other is it possible for them to endure. It’s pretty meaty stuff and just proves a lot of what I believe about human suffering. A lot of people like to dismiss the effects of suffering with a little saying– one of the biggies is “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” I really hate that saying. The logical implication is that, if you do despair or break, if your pain is overwhelming and you cannot see any light, if agony overwhelms your senses . . . well, you just need to try harder. It’s a merciless pitiless way to regard suffering.
I believe that God does not, indeed, give us more than we can handle, but even Job in the midst of his sufferings had his friends to support him, to talk to him, to even argue with him and back-handedly encourage him by showing him what he did not believe. If we leave someone alone in their suffering, we are depriving them of the help that they may very possibly desperately need to prevail. It’s no surprise to me that belonging, love, and affection are just above our physical needs and safety needs. Without that sense of belonging and without love, we’re crippled. If someone tells you or shows you by their actions that they’re overwhelmed by life, pain, illness, grief . . . it’s our obligation to help them, not to mouth platitudes at them.
I’m looking forwards to finishing the second series of the show. Not just because I get to watch people struggle through amazingly difficult circumstances, but because it’s also an opportunity to remind myself that we all need each other for survival. So many people mythologize “Mother Earth” as a loving neutral beneficence– the show dispels that mumbo-jumbo pretty quickly. The only things that care whether you live or die are other people. We hold on to each other, or we fail.