Lessons from Pi: Carnivore Islands

Warning: slight spoilers ahead

The Life of Pi is a surreal movie with breathtakingly beautiful imagery and a poignant tale to tell. It’s based on a book that explores the story of a young man lost at sea and the encounters he has on his journey as he seeks survival and rescue.

At one point in the story, Pi winds up on an island, strange and unearthly, and yet a lifesaver for him and his tiger campanion who have run out of food and water. He explores the island and finds edible roots, fields populated by thousands of meerkats, and freshwater springs that bubble up from the island’s heart.

As night approaches though, the meerkats seem to flee in terror from the field, climbing the trees that surround it. Pi can’t see anything chasing them, so he thinks nothing of it. Curling up in a tree to sleep with the first full stomach and satisfied thirst he’s felt in a long time, Pi seems ready to rest.

He wakes in the middle of the night and looks down into the pool of spring water that he swam in and drank from during the day. The fish that were swimming with him in that pool are floating at the top, moving with the currents of the eerily green glowing water, but not alive. He realizes the ground has become acidic and seems to contain a drug with sedative properties. Then, he finds a tightly wrapped leaf on the tree next to him. Removing the lead and unwrapping it, he finds a human tooth.

Immediately the next morning, Pi and his tiger leave the island on their raft. Pi has realized the island’s true nature. During the day, it is a wonderful bastion of life and provision. But at night, it turns dangerous. At night, the island eats those who inhabit it.

Pi realizes that someone had stayed on that island before him. They must have decided to remain there for a while at least, eating and resting away from the tumultuous ocean that brought them there. But the island turned on them, and in their solitary paradise, they were consumed.

This part if the movie made me think about the individualistic culture we have become in America. We have a tendency to separate and to be disingenuous to each other under the guise of “propriety.” Often, our answer to the question, “how are you?” can determine, to some degree, the extent to which we have secluded ourselves on our own personal haven of comfort. There’s no one to question us or see our flaws or needs. We can eat and drink and be rested. Risk is minimal compared to the unpredictable ocean of intimate relationships.

I think most of us learn this self-preserving behavior sometime in middle school. Maybe even before then. And we set our fiances, emotions, and relationships around creating and preserving this illusion of lonely independence.

But when the only person you’re truly alone with is you, when there are no outside forces allowed to act on you, no input from others, no greater authority or trusted campanion in the deep parts, you may find that you start to turn on yourself. You may find that your bastion of safety begins to consume you. And that yearned for seclusion and provision can end up halting our forward progress and inverting our growth, causing us to live stagnant in life, unaware of why our greatest desires have left us with nothing but a fossilized tooth.

Risk the waters of authenticity. Risk allowing others in. And more than that, dig into their lives and loves. We need to get off our islands and stop making it about us. Intimacy starts with a question: “will you let me know you?” Make it about the other person. Learn to know others, and then learn to love what you know.

This is part of what I’m learning to do right now. I’m leaving the island, hoping it sinks into the muky depths. I’d rather trust the waves of real life, and the God who carries me through them, then my self-created safe-zone where I can’t be touched or hurt.