Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Chris McCandless: Where The Wild Things Are

Note: If you haven't read Krakauer's Into The Wild, or followed the debate surrounding the book, this won't make much sense.

My favorite childhood book was Where the Wild Things Are. One of my favorite 'adult' books is Into the Wild. These two books have more in common than the word, "wild." They both address an inherent thirst in the heart of all man/men: the thirst for adventure. This is desire to cut loose, take risks, and set off into the sunset alone, and without a plan; this is the inkling to set sail for a wild place, with a wild and free heart. Both books present a character following this desire. And, in both books, the main character (and by extension, the reader) learns that such journeys do not all end well. However, in Where the Wild Things Are, our little hero sees the folly of his ways and returns home. He learns that wildness unrestrained in the rough and tumble wilderness, with rough and tumble  creatures, is only fun for so long. And so, Max goes home to the domestic pleasures of a loving mother. It appears, especially in the portrait painted by Krakauer, that Chris McCandless learned a similar lesson. Only, he never made it home.

I submit that we should, in raising boys and in being men, continue to honor McCandless' zest for adventure even though his journey did not end well. There was something brave and bold about his life, and that is one reason his life, albeit short, had such an impact. I submit that critics of his have been too severe in their critiques. He died -- not simply because he was reckless -- but mostly because of what some would call bad luck, others call fate, and others (me included) providential particulars.

He had some genuinely bad fortune. For example, being poisoned and made weak by eating "Pot. seed." Also, his body was found only 19 days after his death. Let's say he had preserved the moose (which, incidentally, he might have if he'd not been given bad advice in South Dakota). Well, this would have gotten him through that final 19 days, and he would have been found. He wasn't just reckless, and he wasn't suicidal. One or two critical breaks in the other direction, and he would have made it out alive. We should think of his death along the lines of an "accident." There was no intentionality to his death, certainly not on his part. A truly reckless person often has a death wish; McCandless had the opposite: a life wish: a genuine desire to live life to its fullest: a genuine, and mostly good, desire to journey where the wild things are.

Aristotle argued that courage is the golden mean between feelings of of cowardice on the one hand, and feelings of recklessness on the other. True courage is not recklessness; nor is it sheepishness. It is somewhere, some golden place, between the two. I submit that McCandless had -- this is what fascinates us about him -- courage. He nudges us away from sheepishness. Such courage enabled him to set off, "into the wild." This courage should be honored. We need to learn, of course, that real courage avoids recklessness; there are many places and books and men from which to learn this. At the same time, we need to learn that real courage avoids the timid life of a coward. There are many men from which to learn this as well. Chris McCandless is among them.

It is part of a good man to do great and noble deeds, though he risk everything.- Plutarch
It is better by noble boldness to run the risk of being subject to half the evils we anticipate than to remain in cowardly listlessness for fear of what might happen.
- Herodotus
It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat. - Theodore Roosevelt

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