There are at least a dozen, exceptionally over used icebreaker questions about desert islands.
- What would you bring with you on a desert island?
- What one thing could you not live without on a desert island?
- You find yourself on a desert island, what’s the first thing you look for?
- You’re on a desert island with a oil lamp, a candle, and a fire starter, what do you light first?
And on and on they go.
Recently, as I indulged in my guilty podcast pleasure “Off the Vine,” a guest was asked which celebrity they would most want with them on a desert island. Her answer was, brilliantly, “Tom Hanks!” Because, of course, he could make you a bloody hand print volleyball friend and help you pick up FedEx boxes scattered around the beach.
Desert island questions are invariably asked in a way that suggests that the island is deserted except for a thing of your choosing…a person, an item, a celebrity. The assumption is made that we could survive on the island if we had just one thing. We rarely ask these questions realistically. When someone does it’s met with an “aw shucks you ruined the game” attitude. A water filtration system would be an excellent thing to keep on a desert island, but it’s not flashy. Bear Grylls is probably a good choice for a celebrity to have around, but that’s not as romantic as thinking about chilling with (insert your personal choice of male or female celebrity here). The assumption of desert island question is that we’re going to survive on the island, we just get one thing to make survival more interesting, exciting, or erotic.
I recently finished the series “Castaways” on ABC. The premise of “Castaways” is that a dozen people are abandoned on a chain of islands off the mainland of Indonesia, and left to fend for themselves for a non-determined period of time. They have to find shelter, food, water, etc. all while facing their inner demons, and deciding whether or not to go it alone or seek out the other “castaways.” As a show, I found it to be horrendously over produced. It’s clear the cast is wearing woven microphone necklaces the entire time, and there’s a lot of editing that pieces together clips from the castaways’ life before their island experiences with scenes from their life on the island that directly correlate to a lesson they needed to learn. One guy lost 85 lbs. One woman rediscovered her love of music. Another reached the conclusion to adopt his wife’s children. It was pretty heavy handed in delivering the self discovery, and yet, I watched all of it!
The thing that I found fascinating about the show, despite its contrived, story arch, was how it handled the desert island questions. Before the castaways were dropped off on their individual beaches, they were asked to pack a bag, legitimately answering the “What is the one thing you’d want on a desert island?” question. Then, because producers are inherently in it for the good of the show and not the good of the people, they mixed up the bags so that no one would end up with their own. Watching people unpack someone else’s bag and judge what other people thought they’d need to survive on the islands was incredibly hilarious, and kind of eye opening in the range of supplies packed. Some people came really prepared and wound up with nothing of significance in the bag they found. Others had no idea what they’d need to survive, and would up with the bags of the survivalists who had thoroughly packed food, fire starters, and outdoor gear.
Faced with different conditions on different parts of the islands on which they were left, the next decision that the castaways had to make was whether to stay where they were, or venture out to find more resources and, potentially, other people. Here again people’s decisions varied widely. Some decided right away that they would go in alone. Without fail, those people had another person wander through their camp that was looking for a partner, and they had to have an awkward moment when they decided whether to team up or go their own way. Some partnerships were strong. Others were lopsided or poor fits and didn’t last. Some people found the person who had his/her original bag and were reunited with his/her stuff. Others never did.
The “end game” of the show was that rescue was coming, but the contestants never knew when. It was also pretty easy to leave the show. All one seemingly had to do to go home was walk up to one of the numerous producers off camera and say he/she was finished. So over the course of the season, all but five castaways left, sometimes for personal reasons, other times for illness or injury, one woman just decided she’d done all the self discovering she needed to and was finished. The “winners” lasted over 45 days stranded on the islands, but they were only rescued when all five winners had found each other and all of the scattered around luggage and convened in one camp. They weren’t told they had to do this; it was the conclusion they reached all on their own of the best way to make it to the end.
I have to believe this is the way that the producers wanted it to go. Would they have kept them out there for 100 days if that’s how long it would have taken to reunite the whole of the remaining cast? Maybe. If it had dwindled down to one person would the coast guard finally have showed up and said, “Everyone else is gone! You win.” Or would the producers have just waited for that person to tap out as well? For me, there are some days that being completely alone and isolated in the middle of nowhere sounds great…provided my husband shows up at some point, and I have plenty of books or a journal to keep me busy. Maybe I’d last 45 days on my own. But watching the cast’s ongoing struggles play out and the torture they endured as they ate random bugs and rationed granola bars to two bites a day didn’t look like a relaxing getaway, even to the introverts in the group. And not to mention, could I really sit with my own thoughts for 45 days…probably not…and the cast of the show proved they couldn’t either.
It seemed clear that the moral of the story was that there was strength in numbers; it was better not to go it alone; and that community beats out isolation. I wonder if we inherently believe these truths in real life, and that drives us to ask desert island questions. If we answered them honestly, at least from what I could tell from the show, it’d probably be to say that we wouldn’t care what the answer to any of them would be provide it was something that brought us a connection to something or someone. That’s what Tom Hank’s volleyball was all about. And if you want to dig into even deeper metaphoric territory, that’s all we’re really looking for in life too. A place. A person. A thing that grounds us. Meaning. Belonging. Maybe that’s why we ask the question, because what we really want to know is what’s the one thing, who’s the one person, that you simply could not give up on.
“Even islands are connected by water. Nature knows that without connection, there is no love and without love, there is no survival. Love wins every, single, time when we join hands and fight for it just like it fights for us” -J. Autherine
What’s one thing I couldn’t live without on a desert island? What’s the one thing I’d really want to take to a desert island? Connection. Love. It’s probably the answer to more questions than we give it credit for. Unless of course the question is which do you light first lamp, candle, or fire starter? Then the answer is always: a match!