Into the Wild of Freedom
By Anna Smith
“He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life. He was alone and young and willful and wildhearted, alone amid a waste of wild air and brackish waters and the seaharvest of shells and tangle and veiled grey sunlight.”
Unheeded, happy, alone, young, willful, and wildhearted—this description of Christopher McCandless, in the biographical novel-turned-movie Into the Wild, sums up a vision of freedom that has haunted me like a siren’s song. I watched the movie for the first time during a study abroad semester in Austria and heard in McCandless’s story the echo of that unrelenting call to freedom. Into the Wild is the story of an intellectual, disillusioned, and idealistic young man who graduates from law school, donates all his money to charity, and sets out “into the wild” in an old yellow Datsun. He is a pilgrim in search of “the experiences, the memories, the great triumphant joy of living to the fullest extent in which real meaning is found.” Watching the movie, I was caught up in his wonder at beauty, his willingness to take magnificent risks, his desire for truth, his love of nature, and, most of all, I was mesmerized by his whole-hearted, fearless embrace of freedom. I watched with jealous admiration as his quest drew him all the way from Georgia across the country and up to Alaska, where he lived entirely alone, testing his ability to survive in the glorious wilderness.
Experiencing new people and places, establishing my independence, and testing my limits: These were tantalizing longings that I wished I had the courage to embrace with the whole-heartedness of a McCandless. Throughout my semester abroad, I fell into bouts of sadness and anxiety because I lacked the courage to go a little further, see a little more, and break a bit freer from my friends and family. I was frustrated with slow traveling companions, having to adapt my plans for others, and my own physical exhaustion and responsibilities. Watching the movie, I felt that McCandless not only understood my restless need for freedom but also had the courage to achieve it—the courage I desperately desired. But as the movie reached its denouement, my heart sank. Christopher McCandless died of starvation, huddled inside his sleeping bag, alone in an abandoned school bus near Mt. McKinley.
I was shocked. This was not the ending that I wanted. Endless freedom, an open road, and the beauty of life shrunk into an emaciated corpse in a sleeping bag. I needed to know more of the story, so I read the biography and found that McCandless’s saga was not just the fruit of an idealist, adventurous spirit. He had come from a family built on secrecy and lies—corruption that deeply frustrated his idealistic nature. His solution was to seek truth far from the constraints and the corruptions of a society and family that had let him down. Tragically, McCandless left behind his parents and his adoring little sister who together received the incomprehensible tidings that their missing boy was found dead in Alaska. The pursuit of ultimate freedom had robbed the McCandless family of a beloved son and brother.
Mercifully, there is more to McCandless’s end than silent starvation. Right before he died, the 24-year-old underlined a passage from Tolstoy’s Family Happiness that reads, “He was right in saying that the only certain happiness in life is to live for others …” A scribbled note on his copy of Dr. Zhivago provides a last ray of hope: “And so it turned out that only a life similar to the life of those around us, merging with it without a ripple, is genuine life, and that an unshared happiness is not happiness …”
The scales fell from my eyes and I realized how deeply I had believed in McCandless’s dream. And I also realized that it was just that: a dream, and not one that I truly wanted. In his final days of starvation and impending death, McCandless realized that freedom does not consist in the gifts of nature, of numerous exciting experiences, and even of the hard-won truths learned through self-reliance and stepping outside of one’s comfort zone. There will always be another mountain to climb and another constraint to shed, but unless we share these experiences with others, their meaning is lost: “An unshared happiness is not happiness.”
Whatever the particular siren melody is, we each face a temptation to look at our human responsibilities and relationships as fetters that prevent us from reaching full happiness. It’s the mother imagining that she’d be a saint, if only she lived a life apart in a convent, far away from the anxiety of family life. It’s the professor who knows he cannot teach to his full potential with a class of ill-prepared, lazy freshmen. It’s me thinking that without God and the demands that He sometimes puts on me, I’d be free to be myself. It’s a lie.