Saturday, September 17, 2016
Naked and Afraid: Part Deux
Last year, on the first Thursday of the first week, I stood before you as the chapel speaker and made a confession; it was personal, and deeply embarrassing: I watch a reality show called Naked and Afraid. The show is ridiculous. I hate myself a little bit for watching it, but I do it anyway. Two naked strangers, like Adam and Eve--the first biblical survivalists, have to survive for 21 days without food, water, and clothing. It is the ultimate setting of personal discomfort. Who would want to do this? You would have to be crazy, right? They say there is no prize money; it’s all about the experience. When I first discovered the show, I thought it was a new low in television. Then I settled in to watch.
But something about the show reminded me of how I feel when I begin a new year. Everyone is a little naked and afraid. When you’re new here, there can be fear and certainly anxiety, and homesickness. Maybe that feeling is already gone. But maybe it’s lingering here tonight, on the fourth day of school. I actually find my own anxiety level increases during Early Week; maybe others do too. Just beginning on Monday was much better than waiting for the year to start.
On Tuesday Dean Kelderman spoke about the importance of being willing to be uncomfortable as she related her experience living on a sailboat. I’m following the same winds tonight. Being a student, being a faculty member, requires you to make peace with discomfort, and to expand your comfort zone little by little each day until the discomfort becomes something like confidence, and even peace of mind.
The episodes of Naked and Afraid show the peril and difficulty of living off the land. Here at Kent, we live close to nature in this beautiful setting, this lovely river valley. Take the time to look around and experience the natural world. Take a hike. On a daily basis, you can spot eagles, hawks, herons, turkeys, beavers, bobcats, and yes there are bears. I have had one bear sighting in my time at Kent. I was driving north on Route 7 just past the village when I saw something large crossing the road. My brain couldn’t process what I was seeing. Why is there a couch crossing the road? I asked myself. Someone is magically moving a sofa. Then my brain knew the word: that is a bear. Bear. It moved slowly, loping along with complete confidence, until it disappeared into the woods. Last year, there was a small white owl who was roosting on the side of the chapel. It was Mr. McDonough who first spotted the owl, resting in a small, circular opening on the chapel wall on the south peak. The owl was a huge hit on Facebook. We are close to nature at Kent, whether you think of it or not. Several years ago, I had a bat living in my chapel office. It rested on the wall near the door, very much alive. I let it be. Live and let live, I say. It stayed for three days inside my office, and I like to think we became close friends, though I never named it. One day it was gone, and I was filled with sadness. But you have to keep moving if you live close to nature. Nature has no place for sentiment and nostalgia; it’s all about survival. And if you love someone, set them free. Fly away little, brown bat. Live long and prosper.
So this chapel talk is “Naked and Afraid: Part Deux.” Subtitled “The Epic Controversy.” What in the world has caused me to speak of this ridiculous show a second time? Here in St. Joseph’s Chapel. To go to this sad, small well one more time. It’s all because the show is…fake. It’s fake. Phony, like Holden used to say. It’s all over the Internet, so it must be true. This accusation hit me like a ton of bricks.
Reality shows are supposed to be, well, real. Is it possible that Naked and Afraid is fake? Ok, let’s be clear. The animals really die on the show; that’s the most important thing, in my opinion. This part is undeniably real. That naked man with a machete really is killing an electric eel, and chopping it into pieces for a BBQ on cable TV as electricity shakes his arms in the struggle. No faking there. Sometimes the camera turns shyly away when there is a blow to the head of an animal. When women kill on the show, it is always memorable; I love those scenes the most, reversing hunter gatherer associations from our genetic past. The women sometimes have cleverly crafted traps for shrimp and fish. Women can kill animals if they get hungry enough. And they will often take the lead in cooking the animals. All of this gives me great faith and comfort.
So what’s fake about the show? The process of editing 21 days to forty-five minutes requires a certain storyline that may not fit the experience of the contestants. This is not raw footage that stands on its own, but rather a narrative that follows something like a script. Some contestants have complained that the show distorts their experience. In particular, the show likes to have villains or bad guys whom the audience is rooting against. The actual experience is much more complicated. Are there really heroes and villains at Kent School? I don’t think life works that way. I am reminded of the character actor James Cagney from the Golden Age of Hollywood. He was famous for playing bad guys in the movies. When asked how he played the villain so well, Cagney responded simply: “I never played a bad guy.” Everyone can be explained, and we are always justifying ourselves…to ourselves.
As my investigation continued, I found the evidence against the show to be slim and anecdotal. The only hard evidence was the treatment of a female contestant named Kim. After eating the liver of a turtle, Kim suffered from food poisoning. She was fed with bread, rice, and baby food for several days. She also had two IV drips. None of this was in the actual show. There was another female contestant who regularly stole food from the camera crew, but none of her behavior was presented. And then there was Shane, one of the more annoying contestants. He limped around for the whole show, whining about everything under the sun. But the episode never revealed that he had three broken toes at the time.
That’s it? I started to feel better. I could face this coming school year with confidence, clothed and unafraid.. And then the NY Times, the paper of record, did a piece on the show. It was an unusual focus, but one that I had often considered myself. Who are the people who do the editing of the pesky body parts? Who are these people? They make it all suitable (more or less) for mainstream America on the Discovery Channel. These are the people who cloud over the nakedness. What kind of job is that? Are they hiring? Do I need to finish Kent to work there? Some of these tech guys thought maybe this was a dream job, but experience proved otherwise in the tedium of hiding the human body. And there can be zero mistakes. The turnover is very high in this department, and 25 people have left the position since the show began five years ago. The work is tedious and boring, and the workers are given to depression. One editor had this to say about the state of his existence working on the show.
“Thankfully we stay pretty hectic around here, so I don’t have a lot of time to sit back and think about the path my life has taken.”
So what makes us different from a silly reality show? Our common life is real. Our business together is deeply real and profound. Not that people can’t be fake here; there’s plenty of that. Our species, homo sapiens, is twisted and strange and tragic, but still capable of greatness and beauty and compassion. But to keep it real you need to let yourself be known. Be genuine. Seek your authentic self and draw out the best of those around you. This happens all the time at Kent, and you can be accepted for who you are at the deepest levels of being human. It will be uncomfortable at times, but keep pushing outward, past your limits. You may be holding on to pain, keeping you from throwing yourself into this crazy thing called life. Last year is not this year. The pain can go somewhere; it can actually do something. This can be the full power of forgiveness, which makes you eager to live again. And to love again.
If you really leave your comfort zone, you might encounter the most amazing presence in the natural world: the Spirit of the Living God. It’s out there, just waiting for you, knocking on your heart. The naked fear you experience now can become the deepest confidence and calmness in your being.
All will be well. I won’t tell you to keep it real this year because I know you’ll do just fine. You got this.