A book I read recently, in which I could identify very well with the “protagonist”, is Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. A few years before Jon finished writing his book, he wrote a long article which can be found here. The following, however, is based on the book.
Jon wrote about Chris McCandless and his life. A life that illustrated idealism – perhaps a stubborn idealism, but idealism nevertheless and that alone attracted me to his life. The gist of McCandless’ life and the book’s story? :
In April 1992 a young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. His name was Christopher Johnson McCandless. He had given $25,000 in savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet, and invented a new life for himself. Four months later, his decomposed body was found by a moose hunter…
Why did Chris want to leave his family to hitchhike into the wilderness? First of all, he did not plan to leave his family and hitchhike forever. He certainly didn’t intend to die. His adventure was not prompted by intentions of suicide.
Chris questioned society and its values and the values and purpose of living of those around him. He was influenced by books like Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. Taken together, this led him to a life of travelling and hitchhiking into the wilderness so that he could “explore the inner country of his own soul.”
People would enjoy this book for different reasons. Some may treat it as a novel. Some read it out of mere curiousity – attracted by the interesting synopsis. Some because they like adventure. The author himself undertook the writing of this book because of the similarities he found between his youth and Chris’.
For me, I admire this book because of it describes a young man of passion. My reason is liable to intense disagreements by many. Surely a person from a rich family who had a great future before him should only be described as foolish for his adventures which led to his death – so many people think.
Either you love him for his passions and ideals, or you think him foolish. That’s the general reaction to Chris’ story. Jon writes:
Some readers admired the boy immensely for his courage and noble ideals; others fulminated that he was a reckless idiot, a wacko, a narcissist who perished out of arrogance and stupidity – and was undeserving of the considerable media attention he received.
Here are 3 of the more positive reviews written by Amazon readers on the book:
I admired McCandless’s idealism and intelligence
I think what Krakauer wanted to do in this book, was let you have a glimpse inside the mind of an acting idealist. Chris was by no means crazy, and in fact was probably much smarter and saner than most. From his journals, you see that Chris had a negative attitude towards many things, including the type of life that is accepted in our society. For Chris, living the mundane life that most of us live, wasn’t enough. He wanted to live on an edge, and set his own standards and lifestyle….Most [other people] don’t go beyond ideals…People who say they don’t understand what he did at all are usually the kind of people who are wrapped up in society, and living life as it has been given them.
This book is a true story about the passion for adventure of a young man.
I can relate and agree with the above three views of Chris. I see in this young man great passion and idealism. Here’s a person who is not afraid to stand up for what he believes in and more so – live his beliefs and ideals out. Indeed most of us “don’t go beyond (our) ideals” – if in the first place many of us have any ideals.
The truth is that most of us are “passionless” people. We don’t live for anything. We just live. Life comes and goes – and we’re mostly the same as we’ve always been.
There isn’t much drive or passion in our lives. No sense of adventure. No goals to achieve. No challenges to overcome and stretch us.
We’re happy to live in our comfort zone and follow how society dictates we should live our lives. We are happy feeling accepted by society. We don’t want to be different. Perhaps we feel no need to be different, because we aren’t different. Our thinking is a mere reflection of society at large.
Chris was an intelligent student and one who thought a lot – about a lot of things. I can certainly identify with this habit of his. He thought about life around him. He thought about society and how and why things work in society. He thought about the purpose of life. Rather than merely living his life as others do, he thought about the reasons for doing what he does. And it was precisely because he was unsatisfied with society’s reasons for living that led him on his adventure, which unfortunately ended in his death.
Wayne Westerberg, whom Chris met Carthage South Dakota, described Chris:
I think maybe part of what got him into trouble was that he did too much thinking. Sometimes he tried too hard to make sense of the world, to figure out why people were bad to each other so often.
Yet was it bad to think too much? That’s what most people nowadays believe. Why think so much? “Just live your life and stop thinking so much!”, would be the reaction of most people. But Chris knew better. He knew, like Socrates, that “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Chris was a philosopher – or at least a student of Philosophy – in the best sense of the word of course. Not a philosopher so far out from reality, but one who thought a lot, sought wisdom, loved to learn – and at the end of it all, one who would live his beliefs out, even if it went against all odds. Most people insist on just living. Chris wasn’t like that. He thought, he learnt, he examined his life and purpose for living – then he lived.
Mrs Westerberg, Wayne’s mum said of Chris:
Alex (Chris’ nickname) struck me as much older than twenty-four. Everything I said, he’d demand to know more about what I meant, about why I thought this way or that. He was hungry to learn about things. Unlike most of us, he was the sort of person who insisted on living out his beliefs.
Chris was not only a questioning ‘philosopher’ but one who lived out his beliefs. Many people love to learn and know more about things in life, but never go so far as to stand up for their beliefs. Applying what Chris believed in is not an impossible task. It is only so for those who are weak-willed. It takes courage to stand up and be counted for things we feel so strongly about. And more still, many times it requires sacrifices. Chris knew that. But he was willing to sacrifice. He would agree with Henry David Thoreau’s phrase, “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth” (This sentence was highlighted in Thoreau’s book “Walden” that was found with Chris’ remains. At the top of the page, the word “truth” had been written in large block letters by Chris.)
For Chris, truth is more important than anything else. Truth is beauty. Truth is worth living out for its sake.
Everett Ruess was another young man Jon described in his book because of similiarities between him and Chris. Wallace Stegner said of Everett:
The peculiar thing about Everett Ruess was that he went out and did the things he dreamed about…
And Ken Sleight said of Chris and Everett:
Everett was strange. Kind of different. But him and McCandless, at least they tried to follow their dream. That’s what was great about them. They tried. Not many do.
That’s right – these are the people I admire most – people who have dreams and live them out. People who are passionate and people who take that step to follow and fulfill their dreams. People who aren’t risk adverse in any way, but courageous and willing to follow their heart to wherever it leads them.
These are the people who truly live their lives and make it worthwhile. These are the people who make a difference in the world.
Another passage highlighted in one of the books (Leo Tolstoy’s “Family Happiness”) found with Chris’ remains was:
I wanted movement and not a calm course of existence. I wanted excitement…
Indeed, Chris could not stand a monotonous way of living. To him, that was no life. A purposeful life is the only life worth living. And a purposeful life more often than not entailed movement, excitement, adventure, passion, LIFE! This is no where illustrated better than in one of my favourite passages in the book when Chris wrote a letter to an eighty year old friend – Ronald Franz – whom he met along his journey to Alaska:
I’d like to repeat the advice I gave you before, in that I think you really should make a radical change in your lifestyle and begin to boldly do things which you may previously never have thought of doing or been too hesitant to attempt. So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun. If you want to get more out of life, Ron, you must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life that will at first appear to you to be crazy. But once you become accustomed to such a life you will see its full meaning and its incredible beauty…
The amazing thing was that Ronald actually took Chris’ advice, stepped out of his comfort zone and led a life Chris suggested he should lead.
In high school, Chris was already serious about life. I can just imagine how while everyone else his age was concerned about the little trivial things in life, Chris stood out among his contemporaries by taking many thing seriously – things that people his age shouldn’t be serious about. Things like inequality…injustice around the world. Things that most kids couldn’t be bothered about, yet he took all these to heart. He went beyond the mere superficialities of life into the “life” matters. It concerned him. He was perhaps the “odd one out”, not afraid of being “politically incorrect”. But that was simply Chris. Odd one out or not, whether he be a loner in his thinking or not – he couldn’t deny his heart.
Kris Maxie Gillmer, a close high school friend of Chris, said:
Chris was really serious about running… It wasn’t just running Chris took so seriously. He was like that about everything. You aren’t supposed to think about heavy-duty stuff in high school. But I did, and he did, too, which is why we hit off. We’d hang out during snack break at his locker and talk about life, the state of the world, serious things… He was always questioning stuff…
And listen to Jon describe more about Chris:
McCandless took life’s inequities to heart. During his senior year at Woodson (his high school), he became obsessed with racial oppression in South Africa. He spoke seriously to his friends about smuggling weapons into that country and joining the struggle to end apartheid. “We’d get into arguments about it once in a while,” recalls Hathaway. “Chris didn’t like going through channels, working within the system, waiting his turn. He’d say, ‘Come on, Eric, we can raise enough money to go to South Africa on our own, right now. It’s just a matter of deciding to do it.’ I’d counter by saying we were only a couple of kids, that we couldn’t possibly make a difference. But you couldn’t argue with him. He’d come back with something like ‘Oh, so I guess you just don’t care about right and wrong.’
On weekends, when his high school pals were attending “keggers” and trying to sneak into Georgetown bars, McCandless would wander the seedier quarters of Washington, chatting with prostitutes and homeless people, buying them meals, earnestly suggesting ways they might improve their lives.
“Chris didn’t understand how people could possibly be allowed to go hungry, especially in this country,” says Billie. “He would rave about that kind of things for hours.”
On one occasion Chris picked up a homeless man from the streets of D.C., brought him home to leafy, affluent Annandale, and secretly set the guy up in the Airstream trailer his parents parked beside the garage. Walt and Bille (Chris’ parents) never knew they were hosting a vagrant.
On another occasion Chris drove over to Hathaway’s house and announced they were going down town. “Cool!” Hathaway remembers thinking.
It was a Friday night, and I assumed we were headed to Georgetown to party. Instead, Chris parked down on Fourteenth Street, which at the time was a real bad part of town. Then he said, ‘You know, Eric, you can read about this stuff, but you can’t understand it until you live it. Tonight that’s what we’re going to do.’ We spent the next few hours hanging out in creepy places, talking with pimps and hookers and lowlife. I was, like, scared.
Toward the end of the evening, Chris asked me how much money I had. I said five dollars. He had ten. ‘Ok, you buy the gas,’ he told me; ‘I’m going to get some food.’ So he spent the ten bucks on a big bag of hamburgers, and we drove around handing them out to smelly guys sleeping on grates. It was the weirdest Friday night of my life. But Chris did that kind of thing a lot.
That was Chris. One of a kind. Passionate. Intense. Driven. He stood apart from his friends. He was different – in a good way. A loner in his thinking perhaps – but how we need more of these type of people in this world!
Society needs more people of Chris’ mindset. We need more passionate people.
Everyday I encounter people around me so passionless, so unmotivated to do anything meaningful in their lives. They live the same monotonous lifestyle day after day. Deep inside they know how boring their life is. But they’ve gotten used to living like that that they no longer seek to change their lifestyle. They accept it. Life to them daily is their same old favourite routine way.
What are some of the favourite things young people do nowadays? They love to watch the television, to go to the movies. They love entertainment. Life to them is all about entertainment. We are, in Neil Postman’s words (which is the title of his excellent book on TV culture), “Amusing ourselves to death.”
When all we care about in life is being entertained, we are in danger of losing any purpose in our lives. Everything that doesn’t entertain us is boring. Gossip is in and entertaining. Truth is boring. Standing up for something you believe in is boring. We lose the zeal to make a difference in this world. We become passionless people.
Following the many quotes of Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” found in the book, I took it upon myself to read through Thoreau’s Walden. I found out that Thoreau was one of America’s greatest and most influential writers, and that his most famous book “Walden”, along with Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” are two books that scholars acknowledge defines America.
In the first chapter of “Walden” entitled “Economy”, Thoreau gives a classic diatribe against the way most of us are so easily caught up with running in the rat-race of making more and more money and surviving in this Capitalistic world that we don’t know how to enjoy life. In a famous quoted portion of his book, Thoreau writes:
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation…A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work.
Most people lead lives of “quiet desperation”. We’re desperate for something more than mere routine. We desire excitement for we all have an adventurous spirit within us. But the sad thing is we suppress it because we get ourselves used to life as it is. We get caught up with making money and earning a living in this “free-market” world that we think life is all about money and wealth and storing up more and more property and things. We are desperate for adventure – but in a quiet way. We are unconsciously desperate and in despair.
And Thoreau writes that there is no play in our “games and amusements” because this “comes after work.” We have separated our work and play – such that work is drab and boring, and play becomes something more lively. Why? Because we hate our work. Our work is boring and merely a means to an end – earning enough money to survive in this world. But if we don’t enjoy our work, then why work? We should find something to do that we enjoy. Something we can be passionate about and find pleasurable and challenging!
Everett knew life as most people lived it was thoroughly boring and unsatisfying – simply unenjoyable. That’s why he wrote in a letter to a friend:
I have always been unsatisfied with life as most people live it. Always I want to live more intensely and richly.
Let us examine our lives in the light of all that has been said and written above. Are we in need of more meaning and passion and adventure in our lives? Or are we pleased with status quo?
You may have lived your life the way you’re living now for many years. Yet it’s not too late to change. It’s because of our own choice that we live the way we do. It’s not because of “fate”. A change in lifestyle is possible. Just as the sun rises clear everyday, so everyday is a new day. You can have a fresh start, as Thoreau says:
…it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet they honestly think there is no choice left. But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up our prejudices.