Alone. Several weeks ago the History Channel began to chronicle the fascinating and sometimes bone-chilling stories of, “Ten men who enter the Vancouver Island wilderness carrying only what they can fit in a small backpack. They are alone in harsh, unforgiving terrain with a single mission–stay alive as long as they can. These men must hunt, build shelters and fend off predators. They will endure extreme isolation and psychological distress as they plunge into the unknown and document the experience themselves. No camera crew. No producers. It is the ultimate test of man’s will.” The man who lasts the longest wins $500,000. After the first few weeks, the number of men surviving Alone dropped to only four men remaining to take on this challenge . . . alone.
This program is one that I do not want to miss! The dangers and challenges are so outside of my own experience that I am captivated. I did sleep in a tent in the “forest” once. After about 5 hours of listening to what I was sure were bears rustling through our campground and enduring a thunderstorm with lightening I knew would strike our tent, I retreated to the car and dreamed of morning, a drive to the nearest Starbucks, and a nap in my own bed at home, safe from wild animals and lightning strikes. One of the first quotations on the screen at the beginning of the program is from Henry David Thoreau:
I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately and see if I could not learn what it had to teach.
Watching this program has made me think a lot about the perils of being alone and what it has to teach us. Most of us will not end up alone to survive on a remote island with bears, cougars, and relentless rain, but . . .
We have our own survival series:
* The least annoying wins. We determine that we don’t want to burden anyone, especially with our long-term pain and problems, and so quickly we leave the pity party as we take on the challenge to deal with life . . . alone.
* Never let them see you sweat. Vulnerability is a sign of weakness, failure, and lack of moral fiber. We live with our shame, addictions, stress, faulty coping strategies, failures, dreams, desires, and desperation for relationships . . . alone.
* Don’t you dare question God! Whether it’s a broken marriage or the unthinkable horror of losing a child, the insecurity of unemployment, or the powerlessness over cancer, arthritis, or diabetes, we may wonder what in the world God is doing, but we don’t dare express our doubt and anger about God. We press all those questions down into the basement of our lives where the part of us that is scared, angry, ashamed, sick, and powerless survives . . . alone.
* I don’t really have time for friends anyway. Our calendar days become filled with busyness, tasks, obligations, service, and achievements that can leave us feeling alienated from others who just don’t “get” how busy we are and don’t seem to even want to compete to win the title of the most competent, successful Christian. We have no other choice but to press on . . . alone.
* I won’t be hurt again. C.S. Lewis describes this survival strategy:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.
Maybe you won’t get hurt, but you will be . . . alone.
I have been a lone ranger for much of my life. I have justified being alone as necessary to get my work done, to not burden others, to hide my flaws and failures, and to find some sense of control in a world that so often does not make sense. But these hard-core survivalists in Alone have given me pause to consider the significant perils of being alone . . . even if we’re just living in the suburbs trying to survive our daily lives.
1. Control is a dangerous illusion. One survivalist on the program celebrated finding some control in this way out-of-control environment. Admirably, he built the frame of a boat and lined it with a thick tarp. It worked! He had taken back some control from the overwhelming challenges of finding food on the island. The first day that he took the boat out, he found a rich source of food on a clam beach. He expressed the rest he felt in knowing that he would always have food. He filled his bucket with 15 pounds of clams, climbed into his boat anticipating arriving back at camp having conquered one of the most difficult elements of survival on this island. This illusion quickly vanished as he got caught in currents that made it impossible for him to get back to his camp in his boat. He stowed his boat, walked the two miles back to his camp, and still celebrated his victory over starvation. unfortunately, only a few hours after feasting on boiled clams, his body jolted him into a painful intestinal reality, overriding any sense of control. He was sick for hours and pretty close to calling it quits. One of the survivalists spoke into his own camera, “You can’t control nature. You have to learn to be part of it.”
There’s a lesson here. When we fight to control our children, our flaws and imperfections, our friendships, not only do we lose control, but we lose our true selves. Control is an illusion. Surrender is the scary alternative. One of my favorite artists, Kirsten Jongen, wrote:
You can’t fake authentic surrender, for it is the moment you unclench your hands . . . and accept what is and finally let go, that the fertile space is provided for Divine intervention and unimaginable possibilities.
How do we move from control to surrender?
* One day at a time.
* Risking to want to be known, accepted, forgiven, and still wanted by others.
* Looking for similarities in others and not differences.
* Honoring differences with curiosity and an authentic desire to learn from others, even and especially from others who make us feel out of control.
* Wanting grace more than justice, possibilities more than safety, and the chance to love and be loved more than not wanting to be hurt.
Donald Miller says it this way in his book Scary Close:
I had to trust that my flaws were the way through which I would receive grace. We don’t think of our flaws as the glue that binds us to the people we love, but they are. Grace only stick to our imperfections.
2. We are all vulnerable to predators. One of the first survivalists to send the signal that he was ready to leave was a man who quickly went to work and built a shelter (it rains 220 days a year on this island). It wasn’t until after he completed his shelter in the wilds, that he discovered the evidence that he had built it very near a bear trail. I guess bears are predictable and frequent trails to hunt, eat their prey, defecate and return to their hibernation hotels. The first night, as the rain whipped this man’s tent, his camera caught sight of bears – adult bears and baby bears sniffing at his shelter. He kept yelling, “Hey, bear,” which I guess is the universal language to tell bears that they are not welcome. I could barely fall asleep that night after watching the show and I actually felt relief when this survivalist set off his flare, signaling the desire to be rescued. He spoke into his camera, “I didn’t come here to be eaten by bears!”
Whether we live in a well-decorated house in the suburbs with a manicured lawn and two-car garage or we live in the city (like my daughter does – with bars on the windows, graffiti on the fences, and a bullet hole in her window), we are all vulnerable to predators. We are reminded in the Scriptures that we have an enemy who carves out trails that intersect with different parts of all of our lives – he is crouching at every corner, wanting to devour us. We can be devoured by trauma, addiction, heartache, poverty, wealth, divorce, loneliness – the possibilities are dishearteningly limitless. And never ever more so than when we are alone.
Several years ago I went away for a month to join a bunch of other addicts and alcoholics to be strengthened and encouraged in our recovery. I sized up my comrades and quickly assessed that I knew more than they did, my recovery was further along than their’s, and I would spend more of my time alone – praying, reading, and shaping my recovery in my own image.
The first week that I was there I got up early in the morning to run on the trails in the beautiful tree-lined woods. I ran alone. On the third day I came to a spot on the trail that was being guarded by a deer. I’m a little afraid of wildlife and so I tried to shoo it away. It stood steadfast, and so I ran back to our lodging, and I swear – I looked over my shoulder and that deer was chasing me. The next morning I asked my roommate to come with me (fear of animals quickly compels me to turn in my lone ranger badge!). We came to the same place on the trail, and there we found a half-eaten baby deer. Sadly, even though that baby deer’s mama was standing guard, a predator snuck in and did what predators do – maim and kill.
As I wandered back to the lodge, I heard God’s Spirit speak to mine, “Sharon, don’t you see, I am trying to keep you from ending up half-eaten, in the middle of the road, but you have to trust and rely on me and others.” Before I could say the next sentence that would acknowledge God’s message, but make me still feel like I was a little bit in control, His Spirit reminded me, “If you are going it alone with God, you are going it alone.”
How do we move from the danger of predators to safety?
* Believe the Irish proverb, “In the shelter of each other we were meant to live.”
* Invite people into your life at every intersection – whether it’s your marriage, singleness, parenting, addiction, financial stress – we cannot find emotional wholeness outside of community.
* Expect your community to be filled with people like you. Don’t be surprised when they are thoughtless, hurtful, judgmental – because they are like you. Allow yourself to be surprised when they generous, encouraging, and affirming – because they are like you.
* Be more afraid of your vulnerability to predators in isolation than your vulnerability to one another in community. We will all get it wrong sometimes and we’ll get hurt and we will hurt others, but community is the best chance we have for our vulnerabilities to be seen, loved, and coaxed out of that room in the basement where we hide some of the best parts of ourselves from others.
Sociologist, Brene Brown poignantly writes about the power of vulnerability:
Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.
3. When you’re alone, you can starve to death. One of the most angst-filled scenes in the History Channel program, Alone, is when my favorite survivalist, Alan, confronts the reality that he may starve to death. He has had some success in eating limpets and seaweed, catching some crabs and fish – but the relentless weather limits his abilities to hunt, fish, and cook. He stays in his tent reciting lines from the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe and worries about starving his body and his mind.
I never fear starving to death. There are restaurants within walking distance of my home. I go to the grocery about every other day (even though I don’t cook). I don’t anticipate getting so hungry that chomping on a piece of seaweed will not only feel necessary, but satisfying. The starvation I know about, when I am isolated and hiding from others, is a different hunger. It is hunger that arises from our design to be in mutual, authentic, vulnerable relationships. When was the last time you acknowledged your hunger to be seen? I fear that we grow accustomed to rushing through the hours of the day, often invisible – partly because we hide beneath competence and workload – and others do the same. We are not only often invisible in plain sight, but we feel slightly ashamed of our appetite to be affirmed. Without the affirmation of others, we don’t know fully who we are. Invisible, unaffirmed . . . and starved by cynicism, we start to believe that we have to feed ourselves and don’t experience the extravagant feast that comes from entrusting ourselves – body, soul, and spirit – to others. We guarantee we won’t get the nourishment we are most hungry for – love. Author John Lynch in his book The Cure, describes this starvation: “No one told me that when I wear a mask, only my mask receives love.”
How do we move from starvation toward nourishment?
* Gratefully acknowledge the “manna” of enough money, time, purpose, love – for today. We starve when we bemoan today’s manna and start worrying about tomorrow’s, concocting some scheme to get things under control by ourselves.
* Tell someone that you’re hungry – for affirmation, for a listening ear, for consolation, or for acceptance.
* Offer sustenance to others. We cannot find nourishment in isolation, and we can become glutenous in searching only for our own sustenance.
* God allows hunger to awaken our hearts. All masks are a way to pretend that we aren’t hungry.
* Keep a journal noting all of the ways you are fed – in the laughter with friends, in the opportunity to bear another’s burden, in telling the truth about your life, and in listening to the truth about another’s with compassionate curiosity. The words of Frederick Buechner echo in my hungry heart:
The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
4. You can never be sure of what’s in the water. The first task for the survivalists was to secure water. For some the first attempt disappointedly turned out to be sea water, unfit for consumption and dangerous for the body and the mind’s well-being. After finding what they hoped was a source of fresh water, they had to lug containers to their camp to boil for further safety. And even then . . . they had no guarantee of what was in the water. As I watch some of their mental toughness start to unravel, I go back and forth between wanting to yell at the TV (I realize this might reflect on my own mental well-being), “Boil your water twice,” or “Don’t drink that water polluted with dead fish and animal feces.”
We pretty much completely take for granted that we don’t have to boil our water or worry that it is salt water from a stinky pond filled with decay. But what do you drink when you’re alone? For years, I drank alcohol. Only alcoholics believe that a good reward for a long day is partaking of a toxic substance in isolation. Some days, though, I drink in the beauty of the world around me. I think often of the words of Jon Krakauer who wrote Into the Wild about his own survival in surveying some of the wildest and most beautiful places on earth. It was only as he was dying, suffering from mental anguish, that he acknowledged, “Happiness is only real when shared.”
I have often wondered about the Living Water that Jesus promised to the woman in the New Testament story who came to the well . . . alone. He promised if she drank His water, she would never be thirsty again. That sounds good to me, but elusive. I have come to believe that the water Jesus was talking about was about drinking in His words of life and sharing that “drink” with others. Maybe you recall the unexpected ending to this story. After the lonely woman’s encounter with Jesus, she ran into town to the very people she had taken great care to isolate from, and invited them to the Living Water. She said, “Come, meet the Man who told me everything I did.” The tenderness of Jesus and His words of life compelled her to take those words to others – to not live alone.
How do we know what’s in the water?
* The only source of Living Water is Jesus. His words, stories, and love quench our thirst just enough to make us want to tell other thirsty people about this water, but even this water does not satiate us while we are here on this dusty planet. God intends to be investigated for eternity, and that means we have to return to the Source of living water over and over and over again. Theologian AB Simpson explains, “Christ is not a reservoir but a spring. His life is continual, active and ever passing on with an outflow as necessary as its inflow. If we do not perpetually draw the fresh supply from the Living Fountain, we shall either grow stagnant or empty, It is, therefore, not so much a perpetual fullness as a perpetual filling.”
* We need to be wary of any other “water” that promises life. It just might contain elements that will begin to disintegrate our well-being.
* Don’t drink alone.
5. When we are barricaded in isolation, we don’t see our next-door neighbors. One of my greatest frustrations while watching this show is that the narrator and graphics of the program reveal that at times these survivalists are only 3-4 miles apart. Once again, talking to my television, I shout, “Find each other and it will be so much easier!” Of course, that would probably eliminate them from eligibility for the $500,000, but it sure would make it easier to build shelter, boil water, find food, and survive the elements . . . if they weren’t so alone.
On the website for the History Channel program, there is an opportunity to take a personality test to see what kind of a survivalist you would be. My scores indicated that I have an adventurous personality and could find myself in some unusual and highly challenging situations (obviously it didn’t ask questions about my camping experience or any encounters that I have had with wildlife). The scoring could be accurate if the accommodations meet my 5-star standards! $500,000 is a lot of money and I might consider eating limpets and seaweed and sleeping in a rain-soaked tent for one week. The more realistic “challenging” situation that I could find myself in, though, is trying to do life on my own, determined to save myself with myself, and wearing a mask that conveys that everything is okay – I have shelter, food, water and I’m just fine – with my own company.
How do we move from isolation to relationship with our neighbors?
* Jesus said that we can’t love our neighbors unless we love ourselves. I can’t love myself unless I really believe I am clothed in the righteousness of Christ, loved when I am good for nothing, and that God’s entire story is about wanting to be in a relationship with me. That means when I’m good, bad, and ugly. St. Francis of Assisi said, “We can’t love the lepers without, unless we love the leper within.” I can’t love that vulnerable, scared, failing and flawed Sharon who I keep locked up alone in the basement of my life unless I let her out.
* I have to take off my mask of performance, because it is only then that I can see the grace that God’s face of love wears. And we can love others when they take off their masks, because He loved us first!
Watching this program on the History channel has reminded me that the perils of being alone are real, convicted me that I need to permanently resign from being a Lone Rangers or a pursuing a perfectible life, and step into the wild possibilities of love. I love the words of the poet, Ellen Bass:
to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
you hold your life and others like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.
You can tune into the History Channel on Thursday nights and see how the four remaining survivalists are doing. Don’t watch it alone!
“In this way we are like the various parts of a human body. Each part gets its meaning from the body as a whole, not the other way around . . . . So since we find ourselves fashioned into all these excellently formed and marvelously functioning parts in Christ’s body, let’s just go ahead and be what we are made to be . . .” (Romans 12:5).