(If you haven’t read the introductory Lost, Found post, you might get some value from doing so, but maybe not, it’s up to you!)
Right out of the gate, in only the first half of the pilot episode, we are exposed to most of the main themes and ideas that will run through the series. As with the series itself, everything is only embryonic at this point, but the seeds are there.
As I do these episode-by-episode commentaries, as much as possible I’d like to stick with the one episode at hand. I’m also generally not planning on turning these into impeccably organized essays or brilliantly argued theses. Like the series, I’d rather take one step at a time and let the bigger picture emerge gradually as time goes on.
Since I’ve already seen the series through the end of Season 4, though, until I’m caught up, everything I say will have the benefit of hindsight. More sense can be made of things earlier on than could have been upon a first viewing — and none moreso than this first episode. And since I’m just setting out, I want to get off to a good start. A sort of orientation, like the videos at the Dharma Initiative stations, giving some idea of what’s ahead without telling the whole story.
This, then, is sure to be longer and more organized than most or probably any other episode commentaries. What seems to need to be talked about here at the outset, a few key overarching themes, should make clear just how profound and potentially important the series is, or at least how profound and potentially important it could be — and so why I think it worth trying to understand the show on these levels. Let’s break things down into the fundamental problem, its causes, then the solutions that can see us through it.
The Problem: Vicious Cycles and Unintended Consequences
It is too early into the story to see any vicious cycles playing out, but soon enough we will start to see them. Plenty of them. Nearly every character is caught in one or more ruts they’d like to get out of. Likewise with unintended consequences — too early to see them, but nearly every storyline will be rife with them. Knowing that this is what lies ahead — and knowing a bit about the nature of these things — we can see the seeds right here from the start, in the very inciting event of the series: a plane crashing on a seemingly deserted South Pacific island. The airplane is a symbol of civilization, and Lost will prove in fundamental ways to be a story about the clash between civilization and all that is beyond civilization.
To understand this and what it has to do with vicious cycles and unintended consequences, we really need to understand what civilization is. It’s not humanity as a whole. It’s not culture as a whole. And it’s certainly not just the finer things or our highest achievements. Civilization is a social structure, one marked by hierarchy and driven by expansion. It has spread nearly all the world round, so defining our lives that we aren’t even aware that anything lies beyond it, that there even could be alternatives to it — and this despite it being inherently dysfunctional and unsustainable.
Make no mistake, it’s not that civilization is bad or worthless. Civilization brings many great things, things many of us value and enjoy. But it also brings nearly all of the things we think of as social ills — it brings nearly every vicious cycle and unintended consequence we’ve ever heard of. When we see these problems, we think, ah, let’s fight it somehow, then we’ll be okay. But few see that it’s a package deal — in civilization, the things we don’t want are by-products of the pursuit of the things we think we do want. Strive more for “the finer things,” and there will inevitably be unintended negative consequences somewhere. Try to hold those negative things back without addressing their cause, and we’re likely only to create a vicious cycle.
Vicious cycles and unintended consequences can and do exist outside civilization, but there they are usually corrected for soon enough. In civilization, there is much that conspires against our seeing the connections that would allow for the necessary corrections. The result: civilization is filled to the brim with vicious cycles and unintended consequences, and they just keep escalating. The same can be said for the characters in the show about each of their own lives — and, not surprisingly, each of their own personal ruts can be traced to more widespread patterns in civilization itself.
It will take the entire series to fully understand and elaborate on all these connections, but for now, in the beginning, the plane crash itself serves as the starting for our journey toward that understanding.
The airplane is a technological marvel, the vehicle that allows flight — it represents both literally and metaphorically the heights that our civilization can reach, the peak of civilization’s ability to go global. And yet, despite air being the fastest and safest form of travel, the airplane isn’t perfect. It takes much fuel to run — and in our present world, where non-renewable fuel prices rise and rise, we are keenly aware of the problems associated with this. It puts pollutants in the air — again, something we are more aware of than ever in this globally warmed world. On top of this, air travel is not fail safe — things can go wrong. And when they go wrong, they can go spectacularly wrong.
And things certainly do go spectacularly wrong for Oceanic 815. The passengers imagine they have hit turbulence. Later, we will learn that it was electromagnetism that brought the plane down. Either way, the plane is no match for the forces of the world beyond civilization. It becomes a death machine. People die in the air. People die in the ocean. People die on the beach. The detached jet engine lying on the sand sucks people in. The hovering wing crashes, causing explosions that kill more. On this island that represents the world beyond civilization, on this beach, a liminal place at the edge of the oceanic source of all life, technology and lives are wrecked and devastated when civilization encroaches.
The violence of civilization and its unwelcome status on the island become more clear when Jack, Kate and Charlie go into the jungle in search of the cockpit with the hope of retrieving the transceiver. Here, the “monster” comes for the first time, and the pilot becomes the first casualty not of the crash but of the island itself. Why? He is the pilot. He is the person who most represents the plane, and the plane most represents civilization in this invasion of the island. He is the emblem of the overall threat to the island posed by these newcomers who are themselves caught in countless vicious cycles. He sits in the front of the vehicle, the most phallic part that penetrates through space, pushing forward, attempting to fulfill civilization’s notion of manifest destiny. As head of the flight crew, he also represents hierarchy, inherent to civilization itself. All of this must be countered by the island, and so the “monster” turns the tables, dispensing with the pilot, dispelling this primary symbol of civilization that has arrived with the plane. The world beyond civilization shows civilization who’s boss.
Some say this show is a metaphor for a post-9/11 world, a world in which we grapple with new possibilities of violence and enmity. This may be a truth, but it’s not the whole truth. It’s as short-sighted to say this is what the show is about as it was for some to say that the Star Wars prequel trilogy was a critique of George W. Bush. Yes, Anakin echoes Bush’s “with us or against us” soundbite — but this phrase goes back at least as far as Jesus. Yes, the story is very much about a democracy giving special powers to its leader and then having a difficult time getting those powers back and restoring freedoms. But George Lucas had Hitler in mind. The point isn’t that saying so badmouths Bush. The point is that this story goes back at least as far as Julius Caesar.
Lost starts with incredible violence because civilization is inherently incredibly violent. Violence, death, tragedy, terror, vicious cycles, unintended consequences — all are part and parcel of civilization itself. They have been since the start. The plane crash symbolizes all of this. And just like the plane, the bigger (and faster) they are, the harder they fall.
Georges Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.” Civilization knows plenty about its history, and yet somehow it keeps making the same mistakes. And the same can be said about the characters. It is not sufficient to remember the past — one has to go beyond remembering to understanding the causes of those cycles, committing to do something different, something that doesn’t create unintended consequences that come back to hurt us. But when the violence, the vicious and the unintended are inherent to civilization and so strong a part of the characters’ daily lives and ongoing thoughts, committing to change means committing to the unknown, and that’s a pretty scary prospect. That, then, leads us to the next main theme.
The Cause: Fear and Denial
The survivors are in a deeply traumatic situation. The plane breaks apart mid-air. It crashes. They are on a strange island. Nobody will come for them, and they will have to deal with countless unknowns, some far more strange and terrifying than anything they could imagine upon hitting that beach. In response to this violence and trauma, fear is a natural response. But fear is difficult to face.
Despite everything going on, though, Jack doesn’t seem afraid. He tells Kate about his first solo procedure in residency, where he accidentally ripped his young patient’s dural sack. He says, “The terror was just so… crazy, so real… and I knew I had to deal with it. So I just made a choice. I’d let the fear in. Let it take over. Let it do its thing. But only for five seconds, that’s all I was gonna give it. So I started to count. One, two, three, four, five. And it was gone. I went back to work, sewed her up and she was fine.”
In that moment, he knew he had to deal with his patient, do his job and try to save her life. It was not something he could or wanted to avoid. But the same is true of his fear — it was too big in that moment for him to repress it, to ignore it, to act in spite of it. In the face of necessity, he knew he had to face his fear. So he let it in, and he experienced it fully — he “let it take over.” In doing so, in honoring and embracing the fear, it disappeared and he was able to do what he had to do. Kate is concerned that she’d have run for the door, but Jack says he doesn’t think she would, saying, “You’re not running now.” In this moment, Kate, too, does what is needed.
Later, in the encounter with the “monster,” Kate is overwhelmed with fear of her own, worrying that the monster is coming for her. But she does what Jack did, counting to five. She lets the fear in. Afterward, she is still somewhat shaken and on guard, but she is soon able to function well. When Charlie shows up and says Jack is gone, the rain stops, and Kate is calm. The sky is now clear, and so is her mind. She is certain they must go back for Jack, and she is calm and resolved about taking this on.
When Jack faced his fear, he saved a life. When Kate faced hers, she was able to reconnect with Jack. Positive benefits came from facing these fears.
But how often — and how effectively — will the characters face their fears? When there are strange and deafening noises from the jungle, trees crashing down, everyone on the beach is terrified. They have no idea what’s in there, and it seems incredibly threatening. In this moment, none truly face their fear of what it might be.
Some fears are overwhelming, indeed. But in the end, we only face the fears that are both too powerful in the moment for us to repress and that we perceive as standing in our way of something deemed necessary. Jack and Kate did so in this episode — but there will be many times in the future that they and others will deny the need to face those fears, just as those on the beach don’t truly face their fear of the “monster” in the jungle in that moment.
This is what denial is — it is denial of the need to face something that, in fact, would be beneficial to face. It is denial that there is even something there to face at all. It is allowing a fear already long ago repressed to have its say in the present, and it is taking that fear’s word at face value and letting it become our own voice, so definitively that we may not even realize that there is any fear there when we speak with that voice. As long as we feel that we get valuable things out of whatever happens when our fears hold sway, even if those many problems come along for the ride with those valuable things, we will not see that the fears are there, and we will not see how much better off we’d be if we faced them instead.
We are clear by now just how central this notion is to the show, how characters keep failing to solve their problems effectively, how they often make things worse, and how they often fail to take advantage of opportunities for redemption. These people will keep making the same mistakes — just as civilization does — because there is great fear inside that causes them to deny the alternative.
Is Jack really not in fear on the beach, dealing with the injured from the crash? Or is it just a controlling part of him taking over, repressing some real fears? Is Kate really free of fear in the jungle after the attack on the pilot? Either way, the jungle is there, the woods of the great fairytales, filled with darkness and unknowns. Everyone must go into the woods, as Jack, Kate and Charlie did to find the transceiver. In there, they must face their fears, their own dark places inside, as Kate did after the attack on the pilot. They may not fully dispel their fears in any one incident, but each time a bit of it is faced, it will be that much easier to face the next bit, and then they will be on the path away from dysfunction and the vicious cycle — the path to finding themselves.
But when civilization provides a real threat to the island, sometimes fear must take the reins. Sometimes certain things must be denied and kept unknown to certain parties. The island is ignored, denied by civilization, thought of by the survivors as a worthless place, a place to leave. They do not see its potential. But as long as they don’t, the island has a difficult time with them. The island itself might just assume they leave, yet this doesn’t seem possible without endangering the island itself.
When Jack, Kate and Charlie find the pilot, he says that nobody knows they are there, that “they’re looking for us in the wrong place.” The island is simply not the place civilization thinks to look for solutions. The island itself is denied. But until people are ready to embrace the island, the island must keep convincing civilization to continue to deny it, to ignore it. Here is one more reason the pilot must die — he has knowledge of the transceiver, of how to contact the outside. The island does not want to be known.
There is, then, a mutual fear. The island — and, we’ll later learn, some people who better understand it — rightly fear the crash survivors. And the survivors certainly fear the island. But all of this is only because the survivors fear themselves, or, more to the point, deny that they even have fears of their own that must be faced for their own good. Only for those who threaten the island, who want to deny it, is the island a scary place. And only those who haven’t faced their own fear can threaten the island, thinking it a place not worth being, wishing it didn’t exist, wishing they weren’t there, wishing for rescue. The island needs the survivors to overcome their fears for its own sake, not altruistically for the sake of the survivors themselves. When the survivors do so, when they find themselves, perhaps then they may find peace with the island. And when enough of them find it, perhaps they will be able to have it off the island, and perhaps the island itself may no longer be in danger.
But how can this kind of progress be made?
The Solution: Care and Connection, Consciousness and Communication, Chaos and Complexity
Fear is natural. It is only when fear is denied that it becomes excessive, out of touch with reality, and therefore dysfunctional. The way to keep fear manageable is to allow for its experience, to honor it as it happens, to help each other in facing it. And the path to that is through care.
In the wake of the crash, we see people giving much care to each other. The first person we see is Jack, the doctor, whose very job it is to care for people. Later, we will see Hurley care for the pregnant Claire. Kate, who says she has only ever used a sewing machine before, will stitch up Jack, the one who usually only helps others and accepts no help for himself. Michael will speaking caringly to his son Walt. Though she will refuse it in this moment, Boone will attempt to provide care for Shannon. Though it will be misguidedly infused with attempts at control, Jin will express care for Sun. We know where these failed attempts at care will lead — people have their demons to face. But the caring impulse itself is key to getting each other through their hard times, past their fears.
It not only helps people past their fears, it builds connection. The survivors are a mass of individuals, only a few already having meaningful connections, and even those connections are often tainted — as with Boone and Shannon, Sun and Jin, Michael and Walt. Even the plane itself breaks apart — the tail separates, then later so does the front with the cockpit. Fragmentation and isolation are the order of the day in civilization. It is only when people can overcome their fears, stretching to care for each other, that they will be able to find wholeness as a group — and within themselves.
How, then, to build the courage to stretch and overcome? By becoming conscious of what’s going on inside of ourselves. This is so key that it informs the very first image we see in entire series — Jack’s closed eye, suddenly opening. The series seems likely to prove to be fundamentally about waking up, about opening one’s eyes, no longer denying, starting to see what is actually there in front of us.
At first, it will be scary. We’re likely to fumble. Indeed, in the show’s very first flashback, Jack is drinking, and is even given additional alcohol by a flight attendant — followed directly by Charlie’s running past them down the aisle, and we know where he’s going. We will soon see many flashbacks for many characters, always learning about their baggage, the things that cause them to keep fumbling, the things they must overcome, some of which even go the extreme of addiction, itself maintained by the most extreme forms of denial. And Jack, whose own open eye opens the show, soon tells us that he blacked out upon the first 200-foot drop of the plane, while Kate then reveals that she saw the whole thing. Will Jack falter more than Kate, by turns opening and closing his eyes to the truth? Is Kate more willing to face things? How often will various characters numb themselves, through substance abuse or otherwise? How often will they take out their own frustrations on others? Such is the drama and difficulty of the journey. However many steps and false starts are involved, though, we cannot face our fears without being willing to see them for what they are, otherwise we will just remain asleep, eyes closed, unaware, numb and out of touch with life.
Consciousness, though, is not an end in itself. When we become conscious of something important that had been hidden, we can help others learn as well. Communication becomes paramount. Some things can be communicated without language, as Hurley seems to simply by being there for Claire. Some, though, require more. Shannon clearly needs more than a candy bar from Boone. Does Shannon need to learn how to better accept care when its given, or does Boone need to learn how to better give Shannon what she actually needs? Both have some learning to do about how to communicate better so that they can give and receive care in ways that make a difference for each other.
Jin and Sun provide more clarity about the importance of communication. In this episode, they seem to be the only ones who don’t speak English. The inability to communicate with the rest make them alienated. They will shun the rest from their shelter when the rain begins — there is no room for them to become part of a meaningful group when they are looking out for themselves so much, but there is no way for them to get beyond themselves if they cannot communicate with anyone else. The same will hold true even between them. What problems might they be having in their marriage, and how much do these troubles relate to their failure to speak the same language, literally and symbolically?
Yet there is Jack, on the beach, going up to perfect strangers to talk to them, to get them helping each other. It seems so obvious it goes without saying. But it can’t go without saying. This is precisely the sort of thing that must be made conscious.
If we can become conscious of how we subvert ourselves, sweeping those things away through care, connection and communication, within ourselves and with others, then we can finally reach a state of harmony. It would be the kind of harmony, though, that reveals the island to be not the unknowable, messy place we think it to be. Not chaotic in the general sense, but chaotic and complex in the scientific sense. Organic and emergent. Orderly in the profound way that a cell or an organism or a ecosystem is orderly, infused with incredible and dynamic order throughout, as opposed to the more superficial order that civilization tries to impose on things like a grid of city streets or the rows of crops in an industrialized farm. We would become aware, once again, that we are part of the world, that we always have been part of the world, and we would go and flow with things rather than against them, participating in that profound order, co-creating it.
Past the chaos of the wreckage on the beach, the lifeless sand, we’d find ourselves embraced by the very different kind of chaos of the living jungle, a true participant in the life of the island. Like Charlie after the wing falls and a piece of the plane drops next to him in flames, keeping his cool, not even flinching. He notices it, knows he is safe, and he moves on. Perhaps he is in shock? Maybe so, but his reaction is one of awareness, of adaptation. He doesn’t make a bigger deal of it than it is, because there is no point in doing so, and he moves on once he knows it is dealt with. The musician appropriately expresses harmony in this moment.
Yet Charlie has his own journey to take. He can stand the dropping wreckage, but when the sky opens up with a powerful rain, he is concerned about whether this “end of the world” weather is normal. Jin, likewise, is intent on keeping sheltered from the storm. But John Locke remains at peace. He doesn’t race for cover the way so many of do in a knee-jerk reaction to rain. He looks right up into the sky, facing the rain, opening his arms to take it in. He’s the one who smiled at Kate with an orange wedge in his mouth when she took the shoes off a corpse so that she could trek into the jungle. She embraces life by taking those shoes, a life as vibrant as the bright orange shining in John’s mouth despite the death all around, despite the death that had just moments ago worn those shoes. Through these two small actions, and no dialogue at all in this entire first episode, Locke, whose own journey will be one of communion with the island and so pivotal to the overall story, shows us very clearly that harmony may not always be what we think of as pretty, but it always serves life, and it is always to be celebrated and embraced.
Lost presents us with crisis. Indeed, there will be crisis after crisis. Some will be easier to deal with, and some will be extraordinarily difficult. The key to understanding the show, though — and the key to understanding our own lives and how to create positive change for ourselves — lies in recognizing the oft-mentioned fact that the Chinese characters for the word “crisis” can mean both danger and opportunity.
How will the characters handle crisis, trauma, fear, problems? There may be danger in certain paths, but if they are willing to face that danger, they will find greater opportunity than they could otherwise. They will follow a path toward redemption, resolution, freedom from the fears of the past, peace of mind and harmony. They will get there by realizing that their comfortable homes may have been comfortable, but they were not really home. They will get there by getting lost. But they will not find themselves as a reaction to getting lost, they will find themselves through getting lost. Through that they will find their true homes.
Now we’re in the territory of people like Joseph Campbell, who show us the common ground across countless stories from countless cultures. The characters in Lost are each on their own hero’s journey. Some will succeed, some will fail. Some will help others, some will subvert others. On some level, this is what every story is about. Few, though, are as direct as Lost seems to be about this being what’s going on. In making this so clear, few may have the potential that Lost does to transcend itself and actually inspire its audience to similar journeys of their own. Then again, similar things could be said about other stories that have gained countless fans but have truly inspired only a few, with most being content with the vicarious experience of an audience member. Can art do better than that, inspiring mass change? Can Lost do that? This may be the most important mystery as yet unsolved for the show.
There will be other themes that come up as the series progresses, some absolutely crucial, paramount to grasping the story. Like the show and like these themes already introduced, these things will become clearer later on and just can’t make sense at this point. Like the characters with their fears, we’re not ready to face everything yet. But these broad strokes I’ve outlined here point us in the right direction on our journey to find meaning in the story. In the end, by understanding what happens through the characters getting (becoming) lost, we will find ourselves getting (understanding) Lost.
“Getting Lost” could have been the title of this series of writings, but then the title wouldn’t really have told us anything. Hopefully “Lost, Found” does.