Sweetie and I watched the movie “Into the Wild” a little bit ago. It got me thinking about a lot of things. Then, someone commented on an old blog of mine, and it stirred up the thoughts even more. I wrote this observation:
“I think some people want to be understood. In that case, they may need a good, non-judgmental ear. I have found, in my life, once I stopped focusing so hard on myself and feeling so isolated and incomprehensible, it was ok to let people understand who I really am.”
I felt I wanted to follow up my own thoughts on the movie and expound on these thoughts. I’m trying to write without rambling for 26 pages. Let’s see if I can do it.
If you want to see the movie and want no spoilers whatsoever, you should stop reading. I don’t think I can write what I want to write without talking about important parts of the movie. Consider this your spoiler alert.
Basically, this kid leaves home to wander the country for a couple of years with little to no money. He lives off of odd jobs, the kindness of strangers, and (in the wilds of Alaska) off his own hunting and gathering skills. This is what the IMDB summary says:
Based on a true story. After graduating from Emory University in 1992, top student and athlete Christopher McCandless abandoned his possessions, gave his entire $24,000 savings account to charity and hitchhiked to Alaska to live in the wilderness. Along the way, Christopher encounters a series of characters who shape his life.
That sounded intriguing to me. Of course, that is not the full story. What you learn while watching the movie is – – he was estranged from his family and never told them where he was during his travels. He lied to the people he met about his identity and his background. And ultimately (end-of-movie spoiler here), he dies in the wilderness in Alaska. Unknown and disputed is how exactly he died – did he eat a poisonous plant or just starve to death? Also unknown were his motivations at the end – did he go to Alaska to die purposefully, or was he really ready to go back home/into civilization? How bad was his upbringing? Don’t know.
This is not a commentary on this kid’s life. There has been a lot of comments made about his own motivations and behavior. Was he selfish? Was he arrogant? I don’t know. I just watched a movie. I didn’t know the kid. What I am commenting on are very universal human behaviors that this movie made me think about.
I started thinking about things like emotional pain, self-absorption, truth, alienation, and communication. And I thought of a couple of universal behaviors:
People don’t see what they don’t want to see.
Too often, people tragically become what they dislike.
This kid said he was looking for truth. Truth was the highest ideal, the most important thing to him. His parents had lied to him and that was bad. But, apparently, truth is all relative. He wanted truth because his father lied to him. But what does he do? He lies. He lies about his name. About his family. About why he ran away from home. He met people along the way who cared about him and felt somewhat responsible for him (by helping him out). And he lied to them. But he never seemed to realize that one particular truth about himself. Or maybe, he saw things in such degrees of gray that his lies were ok.
His parents inflicted emotional harm on him. The film never shows him being physically beaten, so let’s just stick with emotional harm. Which, as most of us know can be as, or more damaging, than physical. I had a friend who was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder as an adult due to the abuse she suffered from her mother as a child, and it wasn’t physical abuse. The wounds of the psyche take a long time to heal. You would think that the children of abusers would be the last people on earth who would abuse another. But, sadly, human experience shows this is not true. Some learn to equate abuse with love and, in some warped sense of logic, abuse their own children. This kid inflicted all sorts of emotional pain on the people around him in the name of “truth.” Was he being true to himself? Yes. But, did he even take the time to acknowledge other people’s pain? No. And that is what bugged me. He didn’t have to stay in Slab City with Jan and Rainey. He didn’t have to agree to be adopted by Franz (especially since his parents were still quite alive). But he didn’t even look hard enough to recognize the pain that his actions caused on these people. To say “I’m sorry I have to do this for myself, but I do care for you.” Maybe he did in real life. But again, I think this behavior is universal. I was thinking, after I watched, this is universal in young people who are so tuned into their own selves.
He didn’t listen well enough to recognize the pain that Jan was sharing with him about her own son. I don’t think she was trying to use Chris as a surrogate for her own son. But, as a young kid who was doing the same thing, would it have killed him to say one encouraging thing to her? And would it have destroyed him if he had shared his own tale of pain and abuse with others? Did he just like giving the impression that he was a Zen-like, totally together, relaxed dude to other people? I don’t think so. I think he honestly felt like his pain was too great and too embarrassing to share. Though I don’t understand how, in the year 1992, being an illegitimate offspring can be that devastating. Hello? Was it 1882? No. It was 1992. Not a nice thing to find out, but not something that would destroy your future in this country.
And that leads to the other universal behavior this kid displayed:
Self-absorption is a black hole
Ultimately, self-absorption can lead to your own destruction, and that is one of the most selfish things a person can do (which is what self-absorption is all about…….I know…..duh). Does every human have that right to destroy him/herself? Notwithstanding the will of God, yes (But there is a reason that suicide is classified as a mortal sin. And if you think that isn’t a grave matter for Christians, consider the fact that I may not have survived my teenage years if the idea of that mortal sin didn’t scare the beejeebies out of me. Which, yes, goes a long way towards proving Umberto Eco’s point of the church exerting control over its parishioners, but that is a long discussion for another day).
I’m not saying people are not entitled to some self-pitying moments. Of course that will happen. I’m not even saying that most people don’t recognize this behavior in themselves. Including me. We see it. We know it. We are not stupid.
So, what are some solutions to these problems?? I came up with four ideas (Just ideas. As the saying goes in Dogma: “It’s better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier”):
Experience. Brain chemistry. Discipline. Communication.
How am I qualified to share this with you? I’m not. Too bad. I’m writing anyway. That’s what we writers do.
#1. Experience: I think, the more you experience life and learn about other people’s experiences, the more you can put your own troubles in perspective. Unfortunately, the only way that can happen is if you live long enough to learn about other people, other places, other experiences. Whether by choice or not, Chris didn’t have enough time to learn perspective. And he wasn’t listening enough to the people around him who were trying to offer him some. But I think most of us, if we look, will find there are people in our lives who can offer perspective. My father was vital at this for me after I went away to college and learned to appreciate his long, often rambling lectures.
Because, #2. I think brain chemistry plays a huge part. Perhaps the biggest part. My buddy years ago (oops – I moved that story to the end. Sorry) went through a lot of shit, yes. But it was shit that other people have been able to get through. It was stuff he was already in counseling for and was trying to work through. But, for all his self-discipline and attempts to help himself, I don’t think he could overcome some basic short-circuiting in his brain. For that, he needed some medical help, and I don’t think it was a cop out for him to submit to it. Sometimes, those misfires in our brain can overwhelm everything else. Never underestimate that, or think that you know yourself well enough to know what all the neurons and chemicals in your body are telling each other. I don’t see it as a weakness. It is a simple physiological fact of life.
#s 3 and 4. Discipline and communication.
I think of the scene in “Moonlight and Valentino” when Sylvie yells at Rebecca” “Your time of self-absorption is up!!”
Wow. That was tough. Did Rebecca have an incredibly tragic reason to be self-absorbed? Yes. Was Sylvie correct though? Probably, yes. This is not to say that people don’t have reasons to be tragic. But what was the harsh truth that Sylvie was pointing out?
There comes a time when we need to stop being dominated by those little and big tragedies in our lives. Not forget them all. As I pointed out, Tears for Fears has one of the best lines ever in “I believe there are wounds time can’t heal”. But, the way the movie showed it, this kid could not stop dwelling on the bad things in his family life. Forget about the fact he said he loved his sister, but then left her alone with the parents he despised.
I think there comes a point you have to learn how to make friends with your ghosts (I hate to point out another movie reference, but this reminds me of a powerful scene in Uncommon Valor). It’s easier to deal with your own demons when you learn to recognize that your human existence is not unique in the world. We have many wonderful things that make each of us special. We don’t need our tragedies and foibles to define how others see us. Because, as you also learn as you get older, most people have seen similar things, and it’s not really a big deal. Not to them anyway. Wow. That was a tough one for me at first. But after the shock, it was the best realization of my life. I’ve said it before. Initially, this is a harsh reality. But once I finally got used to the idea, it offered a refreshing release from my own demons. I’m not so damaged that anyone would be shocked to know about me!
Unfortunately, just like treatment for substance abuse, working to heal oneself doesn’t succeed until the person in pain recognizes the problems and……seeks help. Vital point. For me, it was as simple as learning some basic skills. I was great for years at recognizing and self-analyzing my own problems. Was I good at overcoming them? No. Not until I learned how to communicate with others. Not until I learned to stop despising simple things like crying and talking honestly to other people. Wow. What a realization. It was hard to come by. It was hard to overcome them. I had to – sometimes still have to – exert a lot of effort and discipline to overcome my old tendencies and to let myself cry (though my husband would be surprised to hear this). To reach out to other people for help. To offer up my own open ears and heart to other people. You would think that would be easy. Sometimes, it’s the hardest thing in the world. But, if you are the kind of person who relies on others, as Rebecca relied on Sylvie’s friendship, you owe it to other people to sometimes be a giver instead of a taker.
Using that logic (back to the movie), did Chris need to snap out of it since he made a decision for himself to be on his own and not rely on anyone else? Of course he did. He needed to snap out of it for the sake of his own life, which was promising and which he could have used for many things…..to promote wilderness issues, or to write a book to share the truths he worked so hard to learn. The movie did make it seem like this is exactly what happened. That he had an awakening moment. He dried his tears and he set out to leave the wild. He was stymied by a raging river and he didn’t know that he needed to walk just a little ways down the river to find a path out. Then, it was too late.
And maybe that is the point of the movie. Figure it out before it is too late. Or, figure it out in slightly less isolated surroundings. ?? With a telephone and food around. I wish that kid had the opportunity to take what he learned in the wilderness and leave more than just a few scribblings in book margins and boards and old paper.
Why do I get so worked up about it? Maybe because of a bad experience I had years ago being smack dab in the middle of a good friend’s suicide attempt. I can tell you that brought a lot of esoteric, philosophical, high-falutin’ concepts into stark harsh reality for me. It was real. It was scary. It was something I was completely not qualified to deal with. And it left me knowing that I never wanted to see someone fall that far over the edge again. Maybe I get worked up because I have spent so much of my own time working my ass off to try and improve my own emotional outlook. Or maybe because, cynical old cuss that I am, I just want people to be more happy. I know I’ve probably set a record for rambling but, of course, writing things out helps me process my own thoughts. And since I started sharing them a little, I thought I might as well finish the thought. I can offer no other justification than that. Thank you for indulging me. And to paraphrase Saturn, you get a big cookie if you managed to read through this whole thing.