Rated ‘S’ for Spoilers.
“I understood what he was doing, that he had spent four years fulfilling the absurd and tedious duty of graduating from college and now he was emancipated from that world of abstraction, false security, parents, and material excess.”
Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild
‘Into the Wild’ by Jon Krakauer, adapted into a 2007 film by Sean Penn, follows the life story of Alexander McCandless, who upon graduating from college, abandons his family and well-to-do life, rejecting and getting rid of his money and material possessions, to travel through the USA to the Alaskan wilderness. He meets and makes an impact on various people along the way. He left his home suddenly, without informing his family and did not contact them in the entirety of his venture and changes his name to Alexander Supertramp. Upon reaching Alaska he lives a solitary simple life in harmony with nature. Unfortunately, he dies, 4 months after leaving home, of mistakenly eating a poisonous plant. His body is found 19 days later by hikers.
Some brand McCandless immature, narcissistic, or both. This is because he didn’t use his college degree to get a good career and thought he could find all the answers to life’s questions alone by cutting off all his relationships. His parents may have not been perfect but they did their best to educate him and set him up for a good life, and he was ungrateful. Moreover, he brought distress to his family who were worried and desperately tried to find him and he caused his own unnecessary death due to idealism.
From the life of McCandless, however, one can draw inspirations. In the film, I noticed as he was setting forth to make a decision to make the radical change in his life, the book ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’ was on his desk. I figured the book moved him because Ilyich thought that his life was lived for ticking the boxes: going to school, marriage, pursuit of a career, but he saw the vanity of this, and remarked on his death bed:
“Can it be that I have not lived as I ought? … But how not so when I’ve done everything as it should be done?”
Ilyich discovered the dangers of a complacent life, but on his death bed, when he couldn’t do much about it. Perhaps McCandless thought that he was young enough and had the time to rectify complacency by answering the call to adventure.
We too can accept the call to adventure. It’s not exactly about leaving our families and possessions to live in the wild (although it may be). Taking time to evaluate the values that are missing from our lives and leaving our comfort zones to acquire them; that is the main thing. The key value is self-respect, and, it is acquired by taking responsibility for ourselves, as Joan Didion writes:
“In brief, people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called character, a quality which, although approved in the abstract, sometimes loses ground to other, more instantly negotiable virtues.
Nonetheless, character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life—is the source from which self-respect springs.”
What others view in McCandless as narcissism or immaturity, I deem self-respect. He took responsibility for his life, and active steps to improve it. In the long run, his experience is eudemonic and, like Ilyich, he dies so that we learn how to live.