Thursday, October 18, 2012

Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it--Into the Wild Revisited

Denali Rainshower - Alaska -  Mountains
Into The Wild is one of those books that sneaks up on people. At only 207 pages, it appears unassuming. Besides, how can something written by Jon Krakauer, known for his contributions to magazines like Outside be about something tragic and depressing? Well, only someone unfamiliar with his books would think that. Sure, you find plenty of real-life Jack London style adventure. Like London, Krakauer is also known for doing plenty of crazy stuff like making treks alone to mountain tops and getting snowed-in or surviving an avalanche on Mount Everest. What impresses me about Krakauer is that not only does he do these manly man things, but he's also manly enough to share his softer side when he writes about his adventures.

The tragedy that befell the McCandless family was a lifetime in the making; it didn't start with a young man's misguided fantasies about adventures in the Yukon. It started with a dysfunctional family and being surrounded by a culture that insists we shut up and press on. Talk about the safe stuff because the other things make people uncomfortable. When Christopher McCandless (aka Alexander Supertramp) realized that his parents could give him anything but unconditional acceptance or truth, he settled for stripping his life bare to get down to the real and pure.

Nobody can no for sure what was going through McCandless's mind. Some people think he had a psychotic break. Others think he was just an overprivileged spoiled brat who didn't appreciate his expensive education and wasn't appropriately deferential to his rocket scientist father. This post from AlaskaDispatch (via Huffington Post) struck me as surprisingly judgmental of McCandless and of Krakauer's book. Admittedly, if I lived in Alaska and had to deal with silly young people trying to make the same stupid mistake McCandless made, I'd probably be bitter too, but I don't think McCandless set out trying to be a hero, and I don't think Krakauer was trying to make him into one.

When I read Into The Wild, what resonated with me is how frighteningly close most of us come to wondering if anything we experience is reality anymore. There's something about the crazy-making overstimulated commercial culture we live in that makes books like this popular or creates cult followings for movies like Fight Club. In a society ruled by Baby Einstein and Kumon from day one, how are kids supposed to have rites of passage into adulthood? Sometimes I feel like we are putting them on conveyor belts and moving them from one heat lamp to the next until they're big enough to feed themselves. One day, they are children, and the next, they are adults, but some of them have never felt they made a real decision. Yes, teenagers rebel, but going against the grain in a family just for the sake of doing it isn't really making a decision; it's a reaction.

I like to believe that the reason Into The Wild and other books about reconnecting with simplicity like Walden or even Jack London's short stories are popular because they remind us to live deliberately. Life isn't worth living if "living" is going through the motions one day just to get up and do it all over again. It's important to read something grounding once in a while and stop and think about what really matters. It is unfortunate that McCandless had to go all the way out to Alaska and die of starvation to realize that "happiness [is] only real when shared." On his way, he met a lot of people who were eager to bring him into the fold and make him an honorary member of their family, but he didn't know how to trust that sort of connection. I like to think that when high school students are reading Into The Wild that it doesn't just read like a cautionary tale about Alaska being dangerous. I think what Jon Krakauer was trying to do was provide all of us with McCandless's journey vicariously, so that we could come full circle and live to reconnect.

Anyway, if you haven't read the book, I highly recommend it. You won't be able to put it down once you start, at least, I couldn't. I just saw the movie and it is phenomenal. I wasn't sure how they would pull it off since the material involves McCandless being on his own a lot, but everyone who worked on the film did a fantastic job.

Christopher McCandless was an intelligent, sensitive, and troubled man in his early twenties who desperately wanted to avoid turning into his father, and given his violent home life growing up, that isn't surprising. He was doing the best he could with what he knew at the time. No need to idolize him or make him into more than he was, but in finding compassion for him, I think it's easier to find some for ourselves when we feel lost or just want to run away from it all.