What I learned from Reality TV (this week)

I’m a little obsessed with watching the Discovery’s Channel’s Naked and Afraid. Truth be told, I find the purported ‘reality’ in a lot of reality TV pretty fascinating (from a purely psychological perspective of course, I’m not wasting precious hours of my life, I’m doing research!)

For the uninitiated, the premise of Naked and Afraid is to take a man and a woman who are self-described “survivalists” in their normal lives and drop them (naked) in some remote and awe-inspiringly dangerous part of the world, where they do their best to survive the elements and each other for 21 days.

For me at least, the show supplies unending grist for the psychological mill, but here are three of the things that have stood out most:

  1. Shoes are truly the unsung heroes of attire, and much more of a necessity (versus a nice-to-have) than I ever appreciated.
  2. The line we draw between food/not-food is arbitrary and highly context-specific. In my day-to-day life, a severed and partially decomposed bird’s head found of the beach would be solidly in the not-food camp. This show makes the case that 18 days without a solid meal would have one reconsidering that.
  3. It takes a lot of work to make and maintain a fire.

For the Naked and Afraid contestants, fire is fundamental to survival, and they accordingly approach it with a high degree of reverence and care. Today fire (and everything that comes with it) is something most of us take for granted, but the many references to fire that show up in our language speak to its primacy in our ancestral legacy. We ‘light a fire under’ things (or people) to get them going, we question whether or not there’s a ‘spark’ when we meet a potential partner, we say ‘the flame’s gone out’ when passion has taken its leave, we hope for an idea to ‘catch fire’ or watch it go ‘up in smoke.’

Many of the clients I work with come to therapy in part because they’re trying to light or re-ignite a fire. Some have found that depression has dampened all their tinder so that even generating a spark seems unlikely, some are trying to keep the winds of self-doubt from extinguishing intention before it has a chance to catch, and others are poking at the dying embers of a love relationship, wondering if they can be coaxed back to life.

What I’ve learned from the Naked and Afraid contestants is that lighting a fire takes focus and patience, and that timing is everything; the same gust of wind that would encourage a going fire snuffs out the kindling’s flame. I’ve also learned that lighting the fire is only half the battle. Once you have your fire lit (or your project started, or your lover back), you need to keep tending and adding fuel to the fire, all the while keeping an eye out for any rainstorms brewing in the distance.

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