A Tragic Journey
One of the many memorable lines from the classic Christmas movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is “Youth is wasted on the wrong people.” The line is delivered by an older man watching a young couple struggling to find the next step in their awkward romantic dance. As we get older and our ideas about the right way to do things become firmly entrenched, we sometimes forget how those ideas were formed. It is easy to believe you simply always thought that way. But if you think back carefully to those formative years of university and early adult life, you will probably recall a fairly messy process.
Some people are more intentional in their development process. They actively seek out experiences that will require them to navigate challenging and uncertain terrain. They leverage the optimism and energy of youth to ignore the well-meaning cautions of family members and friends. Sometimes the call to adventure is driven by romantic notions and sometimes by an unsettledness in our souls. Both may be telling us the answer to vague questions of purpose and calling can only be found “out there”. And for others the hurt and pain of disappointing relationships and outcomes make it easy to see life on the road as offering a therapeutic escape. Often times it is the combination of all of the above that makes leaving so much more compelling than staying.
This seems to have been the case with Chris McCandless whose story is chronicled by Jon Krakauer in Into the Wild. In most books and movies, we see the young protagonist learn life lessons, overcome a major obstacle, and by the conclusion emerge with new-found wisdom. The process frequently results in healing both internal and external wounds. Unfortunately, this is not Chris McCandless’ story. The book’s cover alerts us that Chris’ body was found in the Alaskan wilderness two years into his journey. Knowing the tragic outcome reinforces the reader’s desire to find meaning in Chris’ life as each chapter provides a few more clues.
McCandless graduated with honors from a prestigious university, donated the remainder of his funds to charity, and embarked on a solo journey without informing his family. His unusual decision reflected his extreme personality, strained family relationships, and a set of idealistic beliefs. He traveled throughout the American West experiencing life on the grueling margins of society as well as the beauty and harshness of living outdoors. Surviving alone in the Alaskan wilderness seemed to represent to Chris the pinnacle of his adventure which he experienced for the final four months of his life. Throughout the book, the reader is challenged to fully understand his decision making and motives. His adventuresome sprit and winsome qualities endeared him to the people he met on his travels and yet there is a rawness to his emotions that reflects a deep internal struggle.
The book does not provide satisfactory answers regarding the exact cause of his death or what exact conclusions he had reached about himself and life from such an unusual journey. As the details of his death circulated in Alaska and beyond, he was largely criticized for a lack of preparedness and perhaps even arrogance in attempting to live off the land. His death, whether caused by starvation or eating poisonous wildlife, can easily be seen in hindsight as avoidable.
As with most tragedies, we seek to fill in the gaps and provide greater meaning. Chris McCandless’ pursuit to find answers to what he felt to be the most important questions and his unbridled willingness to push himself physically and emotionally should not be diminished by a tragic and avoidable outcome. Had he walked out of the Alaskan wilderness, he may have finally been ready to move to the next phase of his life, possessing powerful lessons from such a defining experience.
Along his journey he encountered a number of people who seemed quite willing to help him discover what he needed to learn. He accepted their kindness graciously but never considered how they could play an active role in shaping his journey. Even before he started his journey, Chris had reached the conclusion that traveling alone would be his only option in his quest for self-discovery and healing. In terms of wilderness survival, there are a number of mistakes Chris made that diminished his chances, but the decision to go it alone may be the most foundational one. He missed the opportunity to benefit from the knowledge and experiences of fellow travelers.
In his last journal entries there is a sense that he recognized the attractiveness and perhaps the indispensable reality that life is best when it is shared with others. About three weeks before his death, he finished reading what would be his final book, Dr. Zhivago. He had noted the passage, “unshared happiness is not happiness” and wrote in the margin “HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED.”