Into the Wild From My Warm Suburban Living Room

The other night I finally watched Into the Wild (Stop reading if you don’t want to know how this movie ends. Just about every possible spoiler is mentioned here). I remember this story when it was a popular news feature in the 90’s. I remember the first impressions the story gave you was that the young man was crazy. I remember the discussion of a bag of rice, the Magic Bus, and the Alaskan cold. And I’m pretty sure Rolling Stone magazine did an article on this years before there was ever a movie.  (And of course RS loved the movie.)

In short it’s about Christopher McCandless who upon graduating from Emory University, disengages from society and lives in the Alaskan wild where he eventually dies of either poison or starvation. The movie is adapted from Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book (with the same title).

What makes the story compelling is that Chris was an extremely interesting and intelligent young man. He isn’t crazy but rather he has no care for money (in fact, he donates his $24,000 life savings to Oxfam) recites literature (especially Thoreau, Tolstoy and Emerson) and has no regard for virtually anything society values. Think Neo divorcing himself from the matrix but in real life and without Morpheus or sunglasses. He even changes his name  – to Alex.

Emile Hirsh does a fantastic job in offering the movie watcher a glimpse of what this may have looked like. It’s fun watching a character who is not bogged down by schedules, bills, but rather in love with the nature and care free abandon. Yep, nothing like unwinding from a busy week of work, deadlines, various pressures by watching a movie about a guy who seemingly chooses to not have stress. The irony is that I am watching a movie about it on my LCD.  I imagine for most of the audience, there is an infatuation by the freedom of Alex’s life.

On my drive to school, I was really thinking about this story. For me, the carefree spirit is the only thing that I really valued about “Alex”. I’d like to visit Alaska but only if it were with my family/friends. It looked cool to scream from on top of the abandoned bus but I would have felt ridiculous after I realized there was no camera recording my primal yell for crowded theaters and netflix subscribers. I have never had any serious desire of unplugging from life – especially these days. While there are several things that frustrate me about suburban life and grind, I usually just need a change of scenery, a workout, a conversation over a thai lunch and some time in quiet meditation to feel renewed. That’s my unplugging from “the matrix”.

I enjoy my loving marriage, I live for the sporadic affection of a 19 month old son and the random smiles and spit-ups of a 9 week old. Wonderful family, a lot of good friends, and most days I find fulfillment from my vocation/ministry. Emile Hirsch should make a movie about me.

Yep, sitting in my church office reading emails while listening to Eddie Vedder’s accompanying soundtrack, sipping my Rwandan coffee. I can already feel the envy of the cubicle people. In fact sometimes the office is so warm, I have to crack the window. This is what Chris finds reprehensible – wasting one’s life in an office.

I may comfort myself by the reassurance that I am not selling insurance. The insurance salesman comforts himself by the reassurance he is not selling cars. While the car salesman comforts himself by the reassurance that he is not selling religion.

So why I am here? For me, divorcing myself from the ways of the world is modeled by Jesus and not the wilderness wanderer. I know this sounds preachy but this is one of my favorite parts of the Christian faith – because of Jesus, the ways of the world does not need to control us. One may have to pay taxes but the government doesn’t control your soul (only a third of your salary). One may have to abide my other laws and principles but above them all stands the hope and love found in Christ.

Watching Into the Wild, I felt sorry for Alex that he found his community exclusively in nature with the soundtrack of dead white writers. I couldn’t help but think that he didn’t need his dad’s NASA job, he could have been a literature professor and taken his sons hiking and camping on weekends. He could have brought them into a different sanctuary on a Sunday morning had worshipped the God of creation. Now, I know this is not close to the point of the movie (nor would one have been made) and that Alex’s character may have been further driven to suffocation by my Sunday morning experience. That said, I’d prefer my life not end in an abandoned school bus on a desolate mountain in Alaska. From his diary, it seemed that he was not ready to die like that either. By the time the credits rolled up, your heart is broken and the infatuation you have of leaving it all behind quickly evaporates.

What’s worse is that we as a society and smaller, we in the Church failed to offer Alex something better. Indeed many of our lives resemble his parents’ home, consumed by success and money, hurting and being hurt by each other, anger, neglect, dirty secrets; it is not inconceivable that one would rather live in a tent, wake up to the sun rise and read Jack London instead.

At the same time, watching Into the Wild reminded me not to waste my life in my office or in my car or on my couch or in my shopping mall. My “wild”, the place(s) where I find true life roaming is in the communion of the triune God and because of that, also in the space of family, friends, and others. The movie, though wonderfully shot and with a great soundtrack is a welcomed exercise in taking inventory of the trajectory of life.