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Surviving together

This post originally appeared as a column for MWR.

Twelve years ago, Survivor revolutionized the reality show genre when it took a group of strangers, isolated and with scant supplies, to see who could “outwit, outplay and outlast” over a monthlong competition for a million-dollar prize. It’s a competition with few rules, with deceit and betrayal in the same tool bag as physical stamina, social skills and mental prowess.
From the beginning, I thought of Survivor as much more than a game. How people approach the experience reveals the way they approach life. I’m particularly intrigued with how contestants professing a Christian faith engage in the competition. This past season, Lisa Whelchel’s journey got to the heart of what makes Survivor such a revealing exploration of our culture and our faith.
Lisa Whelchel/screencapture/CBS
Throughout the season, Whelchel struggled with her faith and how to approach Survivor. “I tried to play the game like a real Survivor, and it’s just not me,” she said. “I lied, and I betrayed, and I broke promises.” These tactics, she reflected, “go against everything that’s inside me.”
Making choices like that weighed heavily on her: “God’s all about loving people, and he’s about truth, and he’s about mercy and kindness. And I’m not representing that.” While she wanted to win the game, she confessed at the end of the season, “my heart loved these people and didn’t want to hurt them.”
Survivor has many elements of a game. But unlike most sports or games, it taps into profound aspects of our soul’s DNA — especially when it comes to community.
Competitors spend 24-7 with each other. They share meals and work. They sleep under the same, albeit sometimes figurative, roof. Living side by side, breaking bread and striving together in a mission resonate deeply with us. These are basic building blocks of our lives and relationships. In this context, real relationships — and all the ramifications of those — cannot be avoided.
How contestants deal with those relationships often reflects how they approach people and life in general. Whelchel reveals this poignantly. “Is this just a game, or can I just cut off my heart to play it?” she said at one tribal council. “And then I learned, no, I can’t.”
Survivor offers a reflection of our culture and what fractures our relationships and communities.
In A Season of Mystery, Paula Huston observes that our culture insists “life’s purpose lies in getting what we want.” That requires us to “minimize or even eliminate serious relationships… . Life together becomes more competitive than cooperative.” And that harms our living together. “In a society devoted to personal self-fulfillment, the cost of love often seems too high.”
Nothing is wrong with healthy competition. But when getting what we want — fame, a million-dollar prize, or personal fulfillment — takes precedence over people, we have a problem that goes to the root of who we are.
Whelchel’s experience reflects how that interferes with our capacity and ability to love. As those in whom Christ dwells, our purpose is to love God and others. All else falls under that — even during Survivor.
Survivor is not just a game. Often, the choices contestants make and what they are willing to do to win mirror our own choices and values. Whelchel’s heartfelt struggle gives us pause to examine ourselves, how we live in our communities, the choices we make, and what that says about the role our faith plays in our decisions and relationships.