Into The Wild is a book that calls into the light the question of removing yourself from society, and those that love you, for what you believe to be the full achievement of life.
In 1990, Chris McCandless drove across the country in a Datsun, his beloved car. McCandless left behind a family, and a good education. He donated the majority of his money to charity, and burned the remainder of his bills. The car was eventually destroyed in a flash flood, and he began to hitch across the West (also, a short trip to Mexico). After almost two years of travel, he entered Alaska with a rifle and a 10-pound bag of rice. His body was found 4 months later in a broken down bus.
The Desert Fathers – and Mothers – were early Christians who left their lives for the desert. Living mainly in the Scetes desert of Egypt, they became hermits and recluses, living on their own, ruminating on life and God. They followed the path of Christ, selling one’s every possession and giving the proceeds to the poor, and they took it even further: they attempted complete solitude. One of the most well known Desert Fathers is Anthony the Great.
Siddhārtha Gautama, or Buddha, was the founder of Buddhism. He grew up, got married (to a few wives), had kids, then discovered that there was a world outside of the walls that he had lived behind the majority of his life. As legend goes, he left his miniature kingdom three different times; he first encountered old age, then sickness, then death. As he strove to understand these alien concepts, he decided that he must see more. He left his kingdom and went on the search for enlightenment. In the end, he does, he shares his ways, and Buddhism is born.
These two circumstances – the Desert Fathers and Mothers and Buddha – strike a similar chord in my mind to Chris McCandless’s story. I see people, searching for the truth, the hard-won nugget of light. And this is where I am lost.
These stories, while fascinating, are frightening. I begin to wonder, how far do I have to go to reach my true purpose? Must I leave my family, those I love, and those who love me to find the true meaning in life? Is moving to the desert required? Do I need to sit under a tree and starve to see the light of it all? Do I have to follow the path of those before me, like Buddha, Anthony the Great, or Chris McCandless? Must I follow the extremes?
I think Jon Krakauer is writing to those who feel the need to isolate themselves in order to find answers. He works to demonstrate that there have been those that retreat to the wild and have come out ‘enlightened’ in sense. Krakauer talks about McCandless’s appreciation of Henry David Thoreau and Jack London, among others. But these men, they lived to tell a tale, and they returned to society because they learned the benefit of the wild and the necessity of societal relationships.
McCandless and his story demonstrate that while ‘letting go of all that binds’ is a way to get to truth, one must be careful of the circumstances. For some of us, interactions with people are how we find true selves. For others, like Buddha, a period of isolation does the trick. For still others – though probably very few – living alone under the burning sun of an Egyptian desert is how we find truth.
Jon Krakauer’s Into The Wild is a book that opens up for discussion how we find answers to life’s biggest questions. And I think demonstrates that we don’t all find our answers, or our questions, the same way.