I’m one of those people who can be affected by movies. I really don’t watch that many, so I’m perhaps less cynical than some, less judgmental -- I’m not always looking for that microphone hanging down into the movie frame. Instead, I let myself be carried away by the story line, scenery, characters.
Last night I watched “Into the Wild,” a movie directed by Sean Penn that is based on the biography of Chistopher McCandless written by Jon Krakauer.
Most of you probably know the story. McCandless sets out after college graduation looking for adventure and truth. He thumbs it around the country, existing on precious little, eventually making his way to the wilds of Alaska. McCandless’ “great Alaskan adventure” is his last. After surviving the punishing winter, he mistakenly eats poisonous berries and dies. He was 24 years old.
It was the final frames of this movie that really struck me, specifically the final shot when you’re viewing a photograph of the real Christopher McCandless, not the actor, Emile Hirsch. It’s a self-portrait McCandless took just weeks before his death. An undeveloped photo that was amazingly recovered, with McCandless’ other belongings, by the hunters who found him dead in the abandoned bus he had been living in in the Alaskan wilderness.
While you’re viewing this haunting image, his birth and death date appear: 1968 – 1992.
Twenty-four years. It’s so few.
But what really hit me was the year of his birth -- 1968. I too was born in 1968. I too graduated from an expensive private school in May of 1990. I too went on a backpacking adventure soon after.
But we were so different.
I worked all that summer of 1990, and saved, so that I could follow these guys around while checking out as many European countries (and bars) as possible.
My mission was fun.
McCandless took the $24,000 left in his savings account, donated it to charity, drove his car west until it died, burned all his money, and set out on foot. He was looking for something more than fun.
What was his motivation?
Truth? Escape? Courage? Depression? Brilliance? Dissatisfaction? Curiosity? Longing? Self inquiry?
Was he morally superior or just as mixed up as the rest of us?
In the spring of 1992, at the time of his death, I was living in San Francisco, working the punishing 5:30 am shift at Holy Bagel in the Haight, drinking too much, and seeing lots of live music. I had a tight group of friends, a serious boyfriend, and a couple of kittens. I was on my way back to graduate school in the fall, after my first attempt in 1991 ended in me leaving the University of Hawaii after just one semester. (I had island fever -- I felt too isolated, both geographically and socially.)
Last night I lay thinking about how much less courageous I am than McCandless; about the fact that I couldn’t even hang in tropical Hawaii for a year, let alone spend a winter solo in Alaska; about how little time I’ve spent on moral inquiry and higher truths.
But then my outlook shifted, and I came to the (perhaps convenient) realization that although I found McCandless’ story (at least the one told by Penn) beautiful and compelling, I think that self inquiry at a slower pace, the kind that’s formed out of daily life experience (the ongoing, sometime tedious day after day of our lives), can be just as powerful as something as dramatic as McCandless’ final two years.
Marriage, pregnancy, birth, mothering, divorcing, falling in love, raising children, all these things are, in fact, what life is about; making McCandless’ late realization that “Happiness is not real unless it’s shared” one we both've come to know is true.