Chris McCandless: The Ultimate "Yes…but No!" Story
A few days ago, I noticed that Carine McCandless — sister of Chris from the book and film, Into the Wild — has written a memoir, The Wild Truth. She certainly has a story to tell, and oh how my heart goes out to her all these years later. I hope I get to read the book. From a couple reviews, it looks as if Carine looks back to her family system for some of the roots from which Chris was trying to free himself. It’s possible that Chris’s extreme isolation was just one more tragically-male response to his own trauma. In other words, he was running away from rather than toward something. This only adds to the sadness of the story, even if it is no real surprise.
I first read the journalistic take on the story from John Krakauer several years ago when my iPod died in an airport. What does one do when his iPod dies and he still has time to wait before his flight? Well, I, for one, wandered into bookstore and made an impulse buy. Into the Wild immediately captivated me.
Parts of the it seemed honest, heartfelt, and even inspirational, all the while being destined for failure. A friend and mentor of mine described it as the ultimate “yes, but…no” story. Yes, in that the main character rightly recognized that humanity and our society is so very flawed, broken, and imperfect. “We were meant to live for so much more,” Switchfoot sings. But the “no” comes in that the character’s decision was to disengage, flee relationship, and give up on the possibility of reconciliation, meaningful work, and a flourishing existence. The disturbances that haunted Chris must have been real and deep, but his conclusions were so very tragic.
Chris was a graduate of the prestigious Emory University and possibly headed for Harvard law before he gave it all up in the early 1990s. He cut off his family (including Carine, with whom he was admittedly close), gave his life’s savings to charity, and headed for the wild. With various stops in South Dakota, Mexico, California, and Alaska, his story was traceable, thanks to his journal, which was found appropriately with his dead body in an abandoned bus in Alaska. Krakauer and others still speculate about the cause of death, but it seems to involve some combination of sickness, hunger, and possibly eating something that poisoned him.
Chris’s story possesses human hubris of the kind also found Jack London’s short story, “To Build a Fire.” To do what Chris did, one has to approach life with an aimless foolishness, an expectation of invincibility. Maybe I would be more critical of this insanity if I didn’t recognize some of it in myself, if I wasn’t aware that I have often used an attitude like Chris’s to mask my own life’s fear and pain. For too many men, individualistic narcissism — are those words too strong here? — becomes simply a way of coping with life. As Simon and Garfunkel sang in “I am a Rock,”
I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain.
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain…
I have my books
And my poetry to protect me;
I am shielded in my armor…
I touch no one and no one touches me.
I am a rock,
I am an island.
And a rock feels no pain;
And an island never cries
I do not write any of this to suggest that Chris didn’t possess a very real integrity — what I mean is that he lived aligned with his convictions — or that his lifestyle wasn’t appealing. We all get frustrated with society, with the people around us, with nine-to-five jobs. But are there better ways to respond? I hope so. I think we can be well-meaning and intentioned for years of our lives, but still get all the wrong answers and live the wrong stories.
But the more I live and read (and try to love), the more I want to press in. I want us to work not to eliminate schools, but to make the ones we have better. Not to eliminate politics but to make our politics better. Not to eliminate businesses, but to make better businesses. Not to find relationships with people who aren’t broken, but to be in relationship with people who are honest about and accepting of their own broken messiness. All of this is easier said than done.