Mar 23 2008
When I sent out the email announcing this new blog a few weeks ago, I asked for your suggestions about what sort of posts and articles you’d like to read. Among the many excellent suggestions, one consistent request kept coming up: Tell us more about yourself.
You visit my website, read my comments, receive emails from me, so it’s a fair question: Just who is this guy?
What’s his story?
Which roads has he taken?
So maybe I should start to tell you a little about my own journey…
Have you seen the movie “Into the Wild”?
|Into the Wild (DVD)|
I just rented it a few days ago. It’s the thoughtful, visually stunning, exhilarating, heartbreaking film directed by Sean Penn telling the real-life story Christopher McCandless (played by Emile Hirsh), a young man who, in the early 1990s, abandons his upper-middle-class life and takes to the road in search of something authentic. He donates most of his money to charity, burns the rest, and travels across the heartland and deserts of America before heading north to face the wilds alone in Alaska.
Watching “Into the Wild” was a surreal experience for me. That was me at age 17. I took a journey with surprising parallels to the one in the movie. Like the young man in the movie, I too severed ties with friends and family, traveled through the deserts of the American Southwest, and eventually traveled north with the intention of disappearing “into the wild” of Alaska.
I went through my adolescence in the early 1980s, a time that felt to me like a new Eisenhower era in the US. There was blind dollar worship in Wall Street, students wanted little more than to get their business degrees in college, techno dance pop rattled on the radio. Even the post-punk youth rebellion of the day felt prefabricated.
My assessment of the world was severe and absolute. I saw only facades and numbness in all directions. I was convinced that the adult world awaiting me was populated by the walking dead. Succumbing to normalcy in that culture was, in my eyes, spiritual death.
I wasn’t about to join that world. I was desperate to escape, to find anything that was real, anything that was true and essential.
Thoreau’s challenge filled my thoughts:
“I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, To put to rout all that was not life and not when I had come to die discover that I had not lived.”
– Henry David Thoreau
Also haunting my thoughts were the shamanic myth-fantasies of Carlos Castaneda. I wanted to see what the rest of the world had become blind to.
I graduated from high school. I was registered to attend the University of Southern California, but I felt college was just an excuse to put off what I came to think of as “real life.” Among the scholarships I earned, I received a small cash scholarship from my old high school. I never told my mother about that one. I quietly pocketed it as escape money. I wanted to disappear before I was caught in the net of college and career and family and death without having lived.
I hit the road. I drove through the Sonoran desert of southern Arizona. Saguaro cacti and spiny ocotillo. Red earth and a sky that threatened to swallow me up. Summer thunderstorms battling across mountaintops. Dirt roads to nowhere. Dusty towns with dry fountains and wind-blasted motels. Noon silences that sucked the breath from my lungs.
I needed the greens of my early childhood growing up in Oregon. But I also wanted the frontier, to find the edge of the world. I formed a new destination in my mind: Alaska!
At the same time, I was afraid of unraveling. The crushing solitude of the desert nearly undid me. I needed a traveling companion. Reluctantly, I temporarily returned home to southern California. I reconnected with a high school friend and convinced him to join me on my Alaskan adventure.
We never made it. Already sick of each other by British Columbia, my friend and I decided to turn back.
And that’s probably a good thing. I was frighteningly naïve, and growing more fragmented with each mile.
That decision to return — to Southern California, to family, to college, to normalcy — felt, at the time, like an utter spiritual failure, dooming me to a life in a flat world. I fell into a severe depression that would take me three years to fully climb out of.
But the entire experience prepared me for the unfolding of a more mature and balanced spiritual journey in my 20s. Though lost, I also found a certain freedom. In retrospect, I was given the gift of being able to rebuild myself, to deliberately mold myself, rather than be defined by the unconscious momentum and accretions of life. That sort of shattering and reconstruction is a common initiatory experience. If you can emerge whole, your sense of self is filled with an intentionality and purpose that most people quietly hunger for.
And by confronting my inability to live the life adventure I had envisioned, I learned that supremely difficult virtue: humility. Humility led to compassion. I dropped my harsh judgments of mundane life. Whether our stories are epic or humble, whether we live on the sharp edges or the flat plains, we are all on an immense journey. Each kind act and simple insight is a great victory.
Slowly, sometimes painfully, I was readying for a deeper journey, one that fit a subtler definition of adventure…