Our theme for the month of October is “the elements.”
After watching the Democratic debate last week, I wondered to myself how many people Hillary Clinton really is. A woman with such a commanding resume and chiefly persona must, after all, be more than a woman; she must be a hive of people. Hillary, as it is with any politician, is an ecosystem of speech writers and make-up artists and fundraisers that continuously pump air into an ever-expanding balloon of a campaign until it finally gets off the ground.
As it is with all of us in this age, really. It turns out that inflation is not only economic; it’s social. Being just a flesh and bones, voice box and eardrums human being seems to be worth less and less every year. Firm handshakes depreciate like grandfathers’ silver dollars, and to keep up, we need to become Twitter accounts and dating profiles and personalized URLs, slouching toward inevitable Techtopia.
Fast-forward a few days, and I am sprawled beside my parents watching our new favorite TV show: Naked and Afraid. When I first saw ads for this program a few years back, I rolled my eyes. “Two naked people screaming in the jungle?” I thought. “Way to skim for the scum of the viewer-dom, Discovery Channel!” Two years later, I’m that scum, and I’m proud of it, not least because scum has an intimate knowledge of the squelchy foundations of living. It knows the unglamorous beginnings and endings of existence—the bottom of the Ferris wheel of life—and it’s that crude beauty that the show’s taught me to respect.
Unlike the powdered and prepped candidates of the Democratic debate, the contestants in Naked and Afraid are literally stripped to a delicate chain mail of skin cells and released into unrefined wilderness. It turns out the nakedness is not (only) a gimmick to snag viewers but the final step down to cold, brute humanity. It’s from here that they must attempt to sustain a life for themselves, focusing not on the bank accounts and web presence modern survival requires but on ingesting protein and securing clean drinking water. They need to tend not to their sprawling personas, but to their basic embodiment. In their seclusion from society and snacking on snake eggs, they simultaneously become less modern and more human.
In watching this show, I’m oddly reminded of my European travels this summer. True, I may have been indulging in French cheeses rather than scavenging for parrot heads, but the comparison holds in that I found myself very abruptly plucked from my daily air-balloon life and parachuted down to a new one lacking both the sandbags of “teacher,” “family member,” and “coach” as well the network of people who daily help me carry those responsibilities. I wasn’t naked (although it was Europe), but my whole life could be packed up in ten minutes and carried on my shoulders.
A frequent question I’ve fielded since returning is “How was traveling by yourself?”, and my answer is always a shade of “great.” Up until this summer, I’d never formed an opinion on solitude. Growing up in a mid-sized family in a mid-sized city, I never experienced prolonged seclusion or the impossibility of casually happening upon it.
But for the first time this summer, I went entire days of my life not seeing a single person I knew or being known by a single person. The people I passed were like rustling trees in an enchanting social wilderness. I drifted through gardens and ate little picnics and ran around lakes and sat beside castles, knowing there would be no sharing the memories. There was an Awakening bliss in being nothing to anyone except me to me.
On one of the final nights of my trip, I decided to revisit a restaurant in Stockholm, my first time properly dining alone. I ordered a beer, a bucket of fries, and a glorified cheese patty and felt my hand reach for my phone, my sprawling self. I stopped and challenged myself to a dinner without him.
Instead, I sat in the humid Stockholm dark warmed by the orange lights and laughter of the plaza. I swayed in the ripples of the heat lamps above me and savored the heft of the cheese and looked with concern at a homeless man dervishing nearby. I watched the conversations happening around me and avoided eye contact when someone looked my way and thought my own thoughts, chief among them that if given the option, I’d probably choose to have someone sitting across from me, but that I was perfectly fine how I was.
This is not to say that everyone can or should fly off to a tropical wilderness or Scandinavian metropolis. This is not to say that our sandbag responsibilities should be cut loose or modern lives deflated. This is not to say that I’m not on Team Hillary. What I do think I’m saying is that we all need time to wade into the scum of life, the crude wonder of being a breathing, embodied person. We need to strip down to just ourselves and swim out from there.
Gabe Gunnink (’14) lives in Seattle, where he works for a European travel company and gawks at the landscapes and skylines surrounding him. In his free time, he enjoys practicing Portuguese under his breath on city buses, running far enough to justify eating an entire pan of cinnamon rolls, and faithfully implementing Oxford commas.