62. Finding God in Reality Television

62. Finding God in Reality Television

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Inner Strength

Finding God in Reality Television

You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.

~Marcus Aurelius

Let me start by saying that I am not a particularly religious man. I have spent a large portion of my career working in reality television, where God is a concept reserved for those devout contestants casually referred to as “Jesus freaks.” The last place in the world I expected to be divinely inspired was on the job. But nevertheless, it was during my time working on Survivor that I was witness to a series of events that radically changed my view on belief in a higher power.

Three years ago, as a Segment Producer on Survivor, I was given the opportunity to produce a new twist for the show called Redemption Island, which altered the most basic rule of the game. When contestants were voted out by the tribe, they were no longer out of the competition. They went to the Redemption Island, where they would live in solitude, waiting for the next eliminated contestant to join them. Once there were two residents on Redemption Island, they would compete in a Duel, or a challenge combining physical and mental skills. The winner stayed alive on the Redemption Island, waiting for his or her chance to go back into the game with the other contestants. The loser went home.

In the conceptual meetings, we imagined Redemption Island as a vicious place. Ideally, contestants would be so bitter about being voted off that they would do anything to get back into the game for vengeance. We dreamed that the first exile would monopolize the food and shelter and leave the second resident out to dry in order to weaken his or her opponent in the Duel.

The first Survivor to be voted off was a woman named Francesca. She was a sweet-natured and smart woman, but she had been blindsided at the first Tribal Council. By the time she arrived on Redemption Island, she was upset, embarrassed, and angry (not to mention starving and freezing). She rationalized and did all the self-preservation typical of those experiencing rejection, but by the time the second arrival came, she was still angry and bitter.

Matt was the second person voted out and the second resident of Redemption Island. He was a twenty-two-year-old devout Christian from Nashville who had promoted his love of Christ too much for his fellow Survivors. His good nature was taken advantage of, and he was also blindsided.

Francesca did exactly what we hoped when Matt arrived on a cold and rainy night. She had built a small roof of palm fronds within the shelter to protect herself from the rain, but she didn’t let Matt join her under it. She told him that she was still upset that he had been a part of the alliance that voted her off. Matt didn’t fight the decision. He slept in the rain.

An unexpected thing happened when I interviewed Matt the next morning, right before the first Duel. While he was extremely upset about being lied to by his “friends,” he wasn’t filled with anger or the need for vengeance. He said that everything that had happened was for a reason and it was all part of God’s plan. As much as I tried to get it out of him, he wouldn’t give me the sound bite I wanted, which was “I’ll do anything to get back into the game to get vengeance.” He said he would keep fighting, and he hoped to get back into the game, but it wasn’t up to him.

Matt won the first Duel, and the second, and the third. He kept winning, but the motto remained the same. He was God’s servant, and the results of the duels were in God’s hands. He had a calm and relaxed energy in the Duels that deeply contrasted the obvious nervousness and exhaustion of his opponents. He stopped talking about getting voted out and simply concentrated on the next Duel. Not only that, but Matt convinced almost every contestant who was voted off after him to join him in his faith. Instead of a place of anger and vengeance, Redemption Island turned into a place of peace and love. You can imagine the reaction of the producers when they saw this happening. Every arrival was the same. The contestants arrived angry and embarrassed, but within hours, Matt had them reciting Bible verses. Even the most notorious Survivor villain of all time, Russell Hantz, laid down his devious tricks and shared a meal and Bible study with Matt on the morning of the Duel. When the Duel was over, the losers repeatedly hugged Matt and thanked him on their way out of the game. In a lot of ways, it was the opposite of what we wanted for our TV show, but through our frustration we couldn’t help but notice that Matt was turning into a great story.

Matt won six Duels before he was let back into the real game, right when the two tribes merged into one. He went back to the tribe mates who blindsided him with a renewed sense of hope, not out for vengeance but not necessarily opposed to it either. Then came a shocker. Matt was taken back in by the same people who had blindsided him and was promised that he would be taken to the finals with them. Hesitantly, he believed them, and then they blindsided him again. He was the first person voted off after the merge, and he went straight back to Redemption Island after only three days of being away.

Matt was completely overcome with emotion when he got back. The betrayal went against everything he believed in. He was embarrassed, depressed, and visibly broken, and remained so for the next few days. He didn’t want to be in the game anymore, and yet he wouldn’t quit because that wasn’t God’s will. He still firmly believed that he was there for a reason and everything that had happened was part of a plan, however perplexing that plan might be. After a few days, he regained his footing. He came to realize that he was actually better off on Redemption Island than in the real game. He was still in the competition, but he had a personal haven, free from deception and backstabbing, where he could show new arrivals how to leave behind their anger.

Gradually, Matt found strength again, and he kept winning. Bible study continued with each new arrival, and after every Duel the loser continued to hug Matt goodbye and thank him. He had given them a way to leave the game in peace, something that had never been possible on previous seasons of Survivor. Matt won another four Duels and returned to a state of satisfaction, even joy. Then, on Day 36 out of a possible 39, in the last Duel that decided who went back into the game to face the final five survivors, Matt lost.

It was an endurance challenge where each of the duelers had to balance a platform that held a vase with their foot. If their foot moved, and the vase dropped off the platform, they were out. Matt went into the duel with the usual peace and confidence that I had seen for most of the twenty-nine days we spent together on Redemption Island. He was so at peace that at one point, while he balanced the vase, he looked over at me, behind the cameras, and gave a little head nod and a smile. This was the end of our time together, regardless of the outcome, and I actually found myself getting a bit sad. He hadn’t given us any of the dramatic twists and turns that we wanted as television producers, but I couldn’t help but admire him for what he had done with Redemption Island. On a practical level, it simply made more sense. His belief that everything happened for a reason had allowed him to unload his negative emotions onto the shoulders of a higher power and therefore regain his strength.

I smiled back at Matt as he balanced the vase, and a few minutes later, his foot moved ever so slightly and the vase dropped. He was disappointed, but not entirely. I knew that a part of him didn’t want to go back into the game, where he would undoubtedly fall victim once again to the backstabbing and deceit that he hated so much. I knew that he was happy to exit on his own terms, with his dignity and his beliefs. And even though his departure from the game was part of God’s plan, I had a suspicion that maybe, at that pivotal moment, he had willed his foot to move.

That was my last season working on Survivor. In the time since, I have not become a highly religious man, but in times of adversity I do think about my experience on Redemption Island. And what I tell myself is this: There are always going to be negative experiences in life, rejections and tragedies and disappointments. At some point, we all get voted off by our tribe mates, but in the aftermath of those experiences, we get the same opportunity as Matt. The chance to set the tone for our own redemption islands. We can make our island into a place of anger and bitterness by seeking blame or vengeance, or we can create an island of peace and acceptance by believing that it’s all happening for a reason. In Matt’s case, the results showed that the latter works far better for surviving.

~Nick Fager

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