What I Learned from Man Vs. Wild

I'm still screwed if I'm ever the sole survivor in a plane crash in some miserable natural wilderness, but I have gotten SOME education from this show.
Publish date:
July 5, 2011
life lessons, unrepentant optimism, bear grylls, man vs wild, survival tv

I have a strange love affair with survival-based TV series. I can’t explain it. I haven’t been camping since the 1980s, when I went on a Girl Scout trip with about thirty other girls, maybe two of whom I actually liked. Even that wasn’t “real” camping, as we slept in bunk beds in little cabins instead of tents, but it was close enough for me.

One night, while everyone else was sleeping, I awoke in my top bunk to see an enormous black furry-legged spider perched on the fleece blanket over my chest, peering up at me as though pondering what part to devour first. I screamed, like you do, and threw the blanket to the floor. Then I decided that was insufficient insurance against a spider-related demise, so I leapt from my bunk and ran in circles around the small cabin shrieking incoherently for several minutes while my fellow sleeping Scouts woke up and tried in vain to get me to explain what had caused me to lose my sanity so completely in the middle of the night.

I have not been camping since. But maybe that’s part of what I like about these shows: I get to hang out in the comfort of my home and witness other people doing things I would never do, like eating a live scorpion, or distilling my own urine so that it is drinkable. I like all the survival shows, but a particular favorite is Man Vs. Wild, a series on Discovery in which a hyperactive adrenaline junkie called Bear Grylls cheerfully hurls himself into ridiculous life-threatening situations for our entertainment (and, I guess, education?).

Grylls is one of those people -- we’ve all met them -- whose existence seems to have happened by some cosmic accident, as though he was actually supposed to be three or four different people, but somehow the energy of several individuals got jammed into this one lithe English body which CANNOT STOP MOVING, like an outdoor rock-climbing pee-drinking shark, and so we have Man Vs. Wild to watch.

This series has taught me some useful life lessons, albeit ones I will probably never put into practice whilst riddled with internal parasites in the jungles of Belize. (Oh no Lesley, this isn’t going to be a “Things I Learned from X” deal, is it? YES. YES IT IS.)

Be impulsive. Sometimes. Bear Grylls, or at least his edited TV persona, seems not to be of the “think it through” school of life, as I am. I make decisions only after carefully considering all the possibilities and thoroughly researching my options -- this is as true of buying a sweater as it is of having major surgery. Grylls, on the other hand, seems to believe that life will not keep moving without his help, and so he flings himself at top speed from one situation to the next, seemingly without looking forward or back too much. For someone like me, often stymied by my need to make a fully-informed decision, this is actually a good influence.

Accept the unexpected. I am decent at EXPECTING the unexpected, but when it finally arrives, I am less adept at accepting that yes, something’s gone wrong, and I need to figure a way around it. In every episode of Man Vs. Wild, Grylls will be romping gaily through the natural horrors of absolute nowhere, and will suddenly come upon a huge obstacle right in his intended path. Like a a hundred-foot cliff, or a flash flood, or something really large and hungry for pale English man-flesh. Rather than stand around and complain about it, Grylls immediately assesses the options and moves forward. And then he doesn’t dwell on it for hours or days thereafter. Being a severe over-thinker myself, this is good to remember: things will always go wrong, so just deal with them, and keep going.

Don’t be so freaking serious. Grylls is a man who has imbibed his own urine out of a dead snake carcass in the desert, given himself a bird-poop enema on a handmade raft at sea, and leapt naked into a frozen lake, ALL ON TELEVISION. It is awesome that there are people in the world so willing to look foolish and have a good time doing so. Even the enema? Horrible, but also hilarious. The lesson for me here is not to lose my sense of humor, especially when everything in my life is going to crap. Literally, even.

Put it in your mouth. If you watch Man Vs. Wild often enough, you will notice two trends. One is Grylls peeing. There’s a lot of pee-related activities. The second is Grylls finding some kind of animal or giant mutated insect and immediately sticking his knife in it, declaring it good to eat. Grylls will eat anything, pretty much, usually while meticulously describing how gross it is, but he seems to enjoy even the most disgusting meals, and he never shies away from experiencing their many flavors. I am unlikely to chow down on a raw sheep’s eyeball anytime soon, but this provides metaphorical encouragement to try new things, and to actually taste them, be they strange foods or outrageous experiences.

Do things naked. Grylls is a man who will take off his clothes at a moment’s notice. I know there’s a large faction of people out there who think he’s mad hot, but I mostly enjoy his frequent nudity because he does it so matter-of-factly, without conceit or self-consciousness. He’s just naked, for some random survival-based reason, with his bits all pixelated because Discovery is a family-friendly sort of channel. Simply put, his body is not awesome because of how it looks, but because of the amazing things it can do. This is something I think most of us can learn from.

Never give up. Yeah, I know, thank you, Captain Obvious. But in all seriousness, the fact that Grylls does this stuff and has yet to get killed in the process is weirdly inspirational. If Grylls can spend a night inside a dead animal and have bees sting him ON THE FACE and squeeze the liquid from elephant poop for a horrifying beverage, I can certainly get through whatever petty difficulties I’m facing today. So long as they don’t involve spiders.