After the Suffering, You Get to Keep the Lessons and the Pain Goes Away

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“I do have a love-hate relationship with this place [rainforest of Vancouver Island]. You get up in the morning and you confront the realities of your situation. Some days it’s great, some days it’s horrible. But suffering has value. We avoid it at all costs. We would never want to go back and repeat it, but it has value. It’s a part of life and nobody gets through life without suffering, nobody. [The] question is — what do you allow it to do in you? You can allow that suffering to make you bitter, angry, just a wretched person — you know? [Or] you can allow that suffering to eat away at your soul, turn it on itself, and just chew you apart. Or you can look for the deeper meaning it. My philosophy on suffering is that God is trying to teach me something and I know that in the end, I get to keep those lessons and the pain goes away.”

Post-apocalyptic fiction writer David McIntyre (50) reflecting on his experience surviving in the harsh, formidable remote wilderness of Vancouver Island, Canada — deep in black bear, cougar, and wolf territory — for 66 days without any food, water, shelter and without any contact with the outside world. McIntyre won the second season of Alone (History Channel, 2016) by outlasting nine other isolated survivalists who also tested their survival skills by living entirely off the land. The winner gets $500,000 and bragging rights.

The show Alone is billed as “the ultimate test of human will;” however, that is only part of the overall picture: it is also the ultimate test of courage, strength, sustainability, and adaptability. While half of the participants dropped off before day 30 due to a variety of factors, including fear, debilitating hunger, injury, hypothermia, overwhelming longing for companionship and home, and close encounters with deadly predators; the other half endured the torment of profound isolation — a brutal, unrelenting mixture of mental torment and loneliness. With each passing day, each participant moved closer to their own psychological breaking point. Only McIntyre persevered, escaping mental anguish, battling starvation and intense loneliness, by having a positive mental attitude, a healthy self-identity, and focusing on the present: “[I] stressed the importance of now. What you do with your now is the only time you get to do anything. What can you do right now to make tomorrow easier.”

The experience emphasizes that survival skills (ingenuity and resourcefulness), good health, and physical strength and endurance are not enough to survive alone in the wilderness. The greatest challenge for all participants, especially those that break the 30-day barrier, is the powerful effects of extended isolation, which is manifested in tortuous thinking and loneliness. Participants describe tortuous thinking as being tormented by your personal demons — revisiting over and over again every mistake and regret in your life; “every skeleton in your closet comes out and you can’t get away from them” — to paraphrase an old adage “The devil finds work for idle minds.” The loneliness is experienced as profound longing for companionship, for personal connection. Research has shown that protacted isolation and loneliness can negatively impact a person physical, mental, and cognitive health. Adverse health consequences include impaired cognitive function and decision-making, depression, increased anxiety, disrupted sleep, poor cardiovascular function, lower body strength, impaired immunity — and ultimately, increasing the risk of early death.

After their wilderness experience, all participants gain a new-found appreciation of their loved ones. McIntyre adds, “How many dads would run into a burning building for their children, but they don’t put down the [TV] remote. Use this time to take inventory on and invest in the people and relationships that truly matter to you and back away from the ones that are toxic. Learn the lessons that [being alone in the wilderness] has forced upon us.”

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