Friday, January 25, 2013

Ideals, changing the world, and compromise

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer is the story of Christopher McCandless, a young man from an affluent family who has no patience with our materialist culture, and so goes on a series of trips with no money and very few resources.  He takes various jobs along the way to pay for necessities as he travels around the Southwest, the Northern Plains, and up the Pacific Coast.  Not long after he graduated from college, he took his final trip, to Alaska.  Injured and starving, he was unable to make it out.  He died four months after he entered the Alaskan wilderness.

He was criticized thoroughly at the time for not knowing what he was doing and making stupid mistakes (and he did make some dumb decisions-- like not taking a map).  But if Krakauer has reconstructed his story accurately, it wasn't stupidity so much as some unwise choices combined with several unlucky circumstances.  As one of the characters in the book says, even veterans of the Alaskan backcountry would hesitate to spend six weeks in the wilderness with no support-- and McCandless survived far longer than that. He wasn't clueless.

McCandless' journey seemed to me to be primarily a desire to prove to himself that he could survive without all the trappings of our materialist culture.  But there was also a huge dose of idealistic, change-the-world fervor involved.  He made a deep impression on many of the people he met along the way (Krakauer interviewed many of them), and his idealism and determination to live his life his own way had quite an effect on people.

McCandless didn't want to compromise on his ideals. He could go to sleep at night knowing that he did nothing that day that contributed to a landfill, or lined the pocket of some captain of industry, or helped to perpetuate a system that oppresses the poor or keeps workers chained to their benches in Indonesia. But because of that purity, he mostly lived alone, as a vagrant, with no home and no more possessions than what he could fit in his backpack.

Are ideals worth that?  McCandless certainly thought so at various different points in his travels. Krakauer makes the case that at the end, McCandless had had enough of such a spartan existence and would have been ready to make some concessions to a more conventional existence if he had survived. (which is disputable, because there really is no way to tell what he was thinking the last few weeks of his life).  But it's believable-- the loneliness must have been unrelenting.  Crushing.  We live close enough to the backcountry here that it's not too hard to get away from cell service, internet, electricity, plumbing, etc.  I love it for a few days.  Or even a week or maybe two.  But four months with no contact with another human being, let alone "civilization"? Even introverted me would be going insane.

The discussion in my YALit class when we read this was fascinating.  Was McCandless admirable? or stupid? or wrong? Some of the class were idealists, too.  They argued vociferously for the purity of McCandless's purpose, his clear commitment to a larger vision, and the unfortunate set of circumstances that did him in.  But the less idealistic of us-- which I'm sad to say mostly seemed to be those of us who were older-- were either more cynical or more experienced or just had a different set of priorities. "He wanted to change the world," one young woman said, "but he went out into the backcountry where he had no contact with anyone, and how is that going to change the world?"

Krakauer tells the story of an extreme climbing adventure of his own.  He also felt he had something to prove, but then two weeks after it was over, he was back to his normal life, working as a carpenter.  Did anything change?  Other than bragging rights, what did he gain?  I suppose you could say he gained the knowledge of what he was capable of accomplishing, and that's not a small thing.  but was it worth the risk he took?  If he had broken his neck and never walked again, would he have regretted it, or thought it was worth it to attempt such a primal challenge?

I'm fifty-one.  I used to be an idealist, many years ago.  I used to want to change the world.  I was raised to follow a man who was a vagrant, who had no money and no possessions, and who required that his followers give up everything to join him--their families, their homes, their jobs.  I exchanged those ideals in my mid-twenties for a different agenda, but I still wanted the world to change.  Reading this book was a great gut-check for me.  I've made many compromises over the years, and most of them are fine with me.  There's not a chance I'm going to sell all my possessions and give to the poor, in spite of a direct command to do so from the founder of my religion.  But it hasn't hurt me to think through some of the "decisions" I've made that weren't so much decisions as just going along with the flow.

Having a family has been worth many compromises.  For me, having a family means having a home, and given the kind of families in which Dean and I were raised, having a home has meant a number of things that would have been an anathema to Chris McCandless-- savings accounts, mortgages, life insurance, cars, and lots of stuff.  I've spent many hours this week re-arranging stuff, getting rid of some of it and moving it around and organizing it.  I'm well aware at the moment of how much stuff is stuffed into this house. I felt a momentary pang for the days when all my possessions fit in the trunk of my car. 

I probably should stop there since this is already too long, but I have one more thought and it's not enough to make into its own post.  So:  literally days after I read this book and found myself thinking about how attached I am to some of the things that we own, we put up the Christmas decorations.  I have three ornaments that I treasure: one that I salvaged from a box of stuff from my great grandmother's house because I could remember seeing them on her tree, and two that I remember from my own childhood.

We also have ornaments that we've collected on our travels over the years: one from our honeymoon, one from our trip to China, one from our trip to Europe two years ago.  And then there's the clear glass ornament with a large black dot painted on the side of it that was MadMax's creation in preschool and makes me laugh every year.  Those objects mean a great deal to me, and not because they are collector's items or because they're worth anything. 

Looking at them reminded me that I'm OK with owning things.  True, they could go up in flames tomorrow, or be lost or broken.  But I like having them. It's one of many compromises I'm willing to live with.  Now I'm trying to figure out if there are any I'm not. Hmmm.  There may be another post about this after all.


  1. Excellent post, very thought provoking. I am an idealist too, to a degree. Trying very hard to vote with my dollars and leave as small a footprint as possible.

    Dan and I were just talking about something similar recently, of the many changes we've made in the past few years (and there are many, ya know, there's that one about me parking my car and biking everywhere), I think I'm most proud right now of how we purchase so little packaged items. As food, and as this man spoke of, simply stuff. Sure, we have acquired a few additional belongings (holy crap I love my new stainless steel mixing bowl), but we actually DO make a conscious effort to be aware, enlightened, and live as green as we can.

    Living with nothing, in the wilderness? Yes, it makes a statement. And his impact on those he met along the way is wonderful. He walked his path with purpose, and that's never a bad thing.

    1. We could have a long conversation about this, I'm sure. It has really made me think, too. I think once it became clear to me that I wasn't going to change the world (somewhere in my mid-30s), I got cynical and gave up more than I should have. It has been interesting to re-think some of that stuff.