I’m an idealist in moderation. I say that because I’m reading Into the Wild, about Christopher Johnson McCandless (or Alexander Supertramp, as he renamed himself), a young man who decided to live and die by his ideals.
He was inspired by Thoreau, Tolstoy, and London, was widely read, and was an upper middle-class man educated at Emory. He loved Mark Twain. He hated things. (Me, too, but I need my computer, my phone, and my Kindle. And my cats, which adds a whole host of “things” needed.
He trekked around the country with barely nothing but a backpack for years, finally going on an “Alaskan Odyssey” into the Alaskan wilderness. He was under-prepared and, in the end, died. What scared me was how much I had in common with him and how much I agreed with him, oftentimes.
So I spent a fair amount of the book going, “But I’m not that crazy!”
I think that’s what great heroes are, in both life and books: idealists to an extreme. Ideals are funny things. Any ideal lived perfectly usually fails; in fact, they are usually both the strength and Achilles’ heel of a hero.
This is handy in fiction, because it gives you conflict, inspiration, tragedy, and—because you’re writing fiction and can write the end—triumph.
In real life, Christopher McCandless continues to inspire. People often call young men of that age and temperament, “young and stupid and idealistic,” but I think that’s an amazing age to be. In times past, a lot of good has come to the world from men that age who changed the world, or at least had a huge impact on their culture. That period of life is to be treasured and respected, in my mind.
I’ll leave you with an excerpt of a letter he wrote to a friend, which reads almost like a Manifesto of Living:
“I think you should make a radical change in your lifestyle and begin to boldly do things which you may previously never have thought of doing, or been too hesitant to attempt. So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to bring one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun. If you want to get more out of life, Ron, you must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style that will at first appear to you to be crazy. But once you become accustomed to such a life you will see its full meaning and incredible beauty.
“…Ron, I really hope that as soon as you can you will get out of Salton City, put a little camper on the back of your pickup, and start seeing some of the great work that God has done here in the American West. You will see things and meet people and there is much to learn from them. And you must do it economy style, no motels, do your own cooking, as a general rule spend as little as possible and you will enjoy it much more immensely…. Just get out and do it. Just get out and do it. You will be very, very glad that you did.”
Ron, an eighty-one-year-old man, did. Which is cool.
On the other hand, can you see what I mean? I agree with everything he says… with moderation. But we need our heroes.
In real life, if you spout an ideal but do not live it completely, you are called a hypocrite, and the ideal is—in the mind of the name-caller, at least—proven to have failed. If he’d been less reckless, he would have been labeled a “hypocrite,” and he wouldn’t have inspired others. He would have lived, and he probably would have sunk into obscurity. It’s sort of a Catch-22, in a way.
I highly recommend reading Into the Wild. It’s both inspired my life and my writing. I will probably read it several more times this year, to be honest, and I don’t think I’m done thinking about the book or considering his ideals.
What think you?