life events

The Depth Of Tragedy


A couple weeks ago marked the 20th year since 24-year-old adventurer, Chris McCandless, died of starvation in the Alaska wilderness. By pure coincidence, I happened to pull up from my Netflix queue the 2007 film “Into The Wild”, which tells the story of Chris’s last couple years on earth. The movie cut me open so severely, that I could not restrain myself from immediately downloading the book which made for most of the film’s source material, as well as the movie soundtrack, brilliantly performed by Eddie Vedder.

I’ve struggled against a reluctance to post on this subject, because it feels a lot like I’m plugging media, and that’s not primarily what I like to do here. Worse yet, I didn’t want to sound like I’m doing some sort of review of any of this material, because that really isn’t what I like to do here. But again, the film and book were so impactful to me that I feel I should bring others’ attention to them, in case I’m not the only one who feels like being stung in the chest with displays of life lived fully on the precipice of disaster.

The film is directed by Sean Penn, whom I find to be one of Hollywood’s most annoying figures, with that permanent sneer on his face and the way he stumbles all over himself every time he decides to talk politics, but I also love the guy because you put him anywhere around a movie camera, and he becomes some sort of fantastical genius – like God packed an overabundance of brilliance into one quadrant of the man’s brain, and it’s only properly tapped when it involves acting or screenplays or camera angles or epic soundtracks.

Not to recount the whole Chris McCandless tale, as I hope that those not familiar will go check out the movie and book themselves, but quickly – McCandless was a young man who, shortly after graduating college in 1990, disappeared from the lives of everybody who knew him. His reasons for escaping were complicated – he was at odds with his parents over a myriad of things; he was a tremendously passionate boy, drunk on Tolstoy and Jack London; he chose a life devoted to aestheticism and the road. (How much more stark a contrast does his life portray even now, 20 years later, when society has grown even more ripe with “things”?)

For the two years following his disappearance, McCandless traveled extensively across the U.S., never pausing for more than a few weeks in a given location, living from nothing but an oversized backpack and whatever he could work for or borrow, and the experiences he had with the people he encountered while roaming the country…well, the people he encountered are the reason I decided to write about him this morning. What strikes me most about Chris McCandless is the way he affected the people he met while he was living out his adventure.

Everybody loved the boy. Everybody found his presence intoxicating, even those who met him only for a few minutes – they remember their conversations years later. One old man spent a few weeks with him and literally tried to adopt him; this man was so grief-stricken upon the news of Chris’s eventual death, that he renounced his faith and became an atheist (I imagine he eventually relented; atheism doesn’t play out long term for most people).

I wondered as I watched the film if peoples’ reactions to Chris were truly as profound as the movie portrayed. When I read the book, I could see that the film barely scratches the surface of McCandless’s impact on people. I wondered like crazy what it was about that kid which attracted people so much. Sure, he was handsome, incredibly intelligent, a talented singer – many things that would cause people to be drawn, but a lot of people fit that list in even greater degrees who did not shake the hearts of people as Chris did.

I read a line in Jon Krakauer’s book on McCandless, “Into The Wild”; one commentator says of McCandless, “At least he tried to follow his dream. That’s what was great about him. He tried. Not many do.” When I read this line, everything I observed about the life of Chris McCandless made more sense. This is what people found so alluring. They were drawn to the boy’s passion, even if it was misguided at times; his intensity and focus were mesmerizing.

Author Donald Miller says, “Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself.” What a weighty thing to contemplate. There are things in life – things that warp into vices, particularly – that we have little trouble falling in love with. We don’t need to watch someone plunge into chemical dependency or sexual addiction to know that these things are quite pleasurable, at least for a time. But McCandless was in love with something completely different, something beyond the trivial, flesh-deep loves; it took time for people to understand. Some people still don’t understand.

Following his death, and still to this day, there are folks (mostly Alaskans) who label Chris an idiot for stepping into the wilderness not fully prepared. Those people really piss me off, and for more than their propensity to speak so ill of the dead (bad form in itself), it’s their attachment to the belief that this life – the pasty, milk-toast, shadow-world we’re all right now contained in – is the most important thing. It’s preposterous for most people to think that there is something worse than death. And death is bad; I’m not saying it isn’t. But it isn’t the worst thing, at least not on it’s own. The depth of death’s tragedy is directly impacted by the shallowness of life preceding it. Chris McCandless’s death was a tragedy, no doubt. But it was made less so by the abundance of true life he packed into his twenty four years on earth.

“I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye, and may God bless all!”
– Last words of Chris McCandless, found posted with his remains.

51 replies »

  1. What an engaging post. I enjoyed reading it. My son had to read this book for his summer reading assignment (he’s a high school sophomore). I’m going to show him your post–I suspect he’ll be interested to see it. Then again, he’s a teenager, so who knows? ๐Ÿ˜‰ I haven’t read the book or seen the movie. Perhaps it’s about time.

  2. I think McCandless had the guts to do what many do not – pare back to the essence of what life should be. Life should not focus on the accumulation of things, yet we are raised to believe we need much stuff. We don’t. This is a wrenching, but beautiful, tale of what life should be, but isn’t. There are times when I want a shack with two rooms on a beach, without people, politics, or possessions.

    I’ll get the book. I’ve read most of Krakauer’s stuff but not this.

    Great post.

  3. i find no depth to tragedy no height to happiness life plays by no rules and has no definitions play the cards you are dealt and cheat if you can life does and death does not care

  4. I am now fascinated by this young man’s life. Will include the book and movie in my September activities.
    Thanks much for sharing this…dare I say he found faith in the end.

    Great post!

  5. I had never heard of this guy until now. What a terrific post, will be reading the book and watching the movie soon.

  6. WOW Legionwriter, love when passion ignites leaving behind anything that resembles rules. You were brave to watch a movie if you loved the book. I am always extremely disappointed in the movie. The movie can never do a great book justice.
    โ€œSometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself.โ€ …that is the pure essences of stepchildren!

  7. I was unaware of his story. Thanks for the post. Life should be so much more than the shackles we have all willingly put on.

  8. Beautifully written, legion. I haven’t read the book or seen the movie (and I’m with you on being annoyed by Sean Penn), although I’ve heard about his story. Now I’ll have to read up on him. Thank you for sharing your experience with this.

  9. Wow, yes, I have this DVD on my shelf, though I haven’t read the book. It was indeed a spear through the chest. But – misguided or not – I really relate to his journey. Sometimes our lives are so disconnected from anything that really matters…and he wasn’t afraid to go there. Thanks for the reminder ๐Ÿ™‚

    • There is magnificent irony in the title of this post, “The Depth of Tragedy;” so many people find his short-lived liberation from the pursuit of worldly superficiality a tragedy. When in reality, I feel the deepest tragedy rests in the longest of lives, never taking that pure leap of faith into the wilderness of our souls.

      To me, one small and sort-lived lifetime of simplicity, purity, honesty and sincerity, embracing every rawness of life and resisting the comforts of modern commodities possesses within it lifetimes upon lifetimes that a hundred years of pop-cultured white-picket-fenced luxury will never know. To a man who sacrifices all he has in the pursuit of something meaningful, the depths of life eternal are bestowed.

  10. Great read. Ive never read the book but have seen the movie. If it weren’t for people like Chris whose short lived but long impacted and what I consider, free-spirited credulous experiences, we would be bewildered in death.

  11. Oh my ever-loving God.

    You just snatched my soul right out of my body and painted it with your words. Thought for thought. Feeling for feeling. Speechless.

    This remains the single most significant video of my entire life.

    For those of you who aren’t familiar with the book, or the movie for that matter, this video will bring your spirit to its knees. It does for me anyway, and even after watching it fifteen-thousand seven-hundred and forty-nine times, I realize halfway through that tears are forcing their way down my face. I relate so deeply to the story. I think we all can in certain ways.

  12. Sorry I havenโ€™t been around much lately, but my book, The Bellman Chronicles, will be FREE to download on Sept. 10 โ€“ 11! Check it out on my Amazon Kindle page.. You wonโ€™t be disappointed. And if you can slip me a review, Iโ€™d be forever gratefulโ€ฆ

  13. Lovely, insightful post. Saw the movie a few years ago, wept buckets. “At least he tried to follow his dream … not many do. ” If anyone could inspire the most lazy or complacent or frightened to make something of themselves – not only that, but make what they truly want out of themselves – it’s that young man, I think.

  14. Thank you for reading my post “The Last day” and commented. I was touched by your story about the adventurer, “Chris”. I will follow your blog and hope you will follow my blog as well. beebeesworld

  15. I read the book countless times, and refused to see the movie for awhile. The book affected me on many levels and I related through my own life to much of it.

    I finally did see the movie, expecting to be disappointed, but saw value in it for what it was. And I think it did the book some justice.

    Great post, brings me back. A lot of who I am is in that book.

    • Having read and watched in quick order, I do believe the movie did the book great justice. Both were extraordinarily well done. I continue to be amazed at the depth of impact that Chris’s story has on people. Something about his devotion to simplicity and unquenchable yearning for new experiences is just heart capturing.

  16. great post. so well written. just sparse enough to be efficient, but thick enough to inspire (and it did!). McCandless did what any one of us can do, but are extremely unlikely to. We are not kept by life, in any form, but it takes great courage to deviate from powerful norms and inertia. This knowledge itself, the knowledge of possibility, even without action, is already a burden to bear – one that hurts us but pushes and evolves us, and one i wouldn’t give up. Thanks again. it’s been really cool to meet you here, and look forward to more.

    • Oh, you do have a way of putting the puzzle pieces together, my friend. Your thoughts on knowledge and possibility – I’m almost afraid to comment on such things for fear of sounding cliche’ or shallow. You hit it hard. It’s been an honor meeting you here.

      • you didn’t seem too afraid to comment on such things in the post ๐Ÿ˜‰ and hit it pretty hard yourself! Nice one. Its great to have dialogue about topics like this, with real depth and personal meaning, rather than the usual such and such.

  17. Hi Luke!
    Enjoyed the post,like always ๐Ÿ™‚ very informative.From your post,I think reading about McCandless taught a lot.Frankly, I didn’t know much about this before I read the post.I am going to watch “Into the wild” asap.


  18. I often slip into the fantasy that I could get rid of everything I own and head out across the country with nothing but the clothes on my back, my dogs, and my husband. It is rare to find someone who truly follows their dreams, no matter the consequences. The life he lived is completely alluring to me. I love travel, I love experiencing different people and places, and I would love to shed all of my responsibilities.

    Alas, I’m too responsible (and scared) for that. I keep working at my job because it pays very well, and it is pleasant, even if I don’t love it. I keep paying my mortgage because that’s what you do, and I like my house and the security and hominess it provides, even if I don’t love it. I keep my closet full of clothes because that’s what I need in order to appear put-together and sucessful in this world. I limit my travel and adventure to two weeks per year (if I’m lucky) because that’s the time allotted to me by society. When it comes down to it, I do love the security, steadiness, and dependability of my life. I often dream of breaking out of this little box, but I will not do it.

    For the most part, I loved your post. I will definitely have to que up my own Netflix sometime very soon to watch that movie. I also steadfastly believe that the book is always better than the movie, so I will probably be going by my local library as well. I do have to take the time to mention that I am an athiest, and I do not believe it is a passing fad. I also know many people like myself for whom athiesm “play(s) out long term.”

    • I thank you so much for reading and for the thoughtful comment! I know you will find the movie and the book worthy intake.
      I echo your feelings on that freedom yearning and the way it’s restrained by our allegiances to society’s expectations. Still, I see this longing in many of us growing at such a massive pace. I do believe we are on the verge of a backlash against the overstimulating, plasticine lifestyles we’ve been sold by our predecessors.
      My point with Ron turning to atheism was mostly this: it wasn’t true of him. In other words, he did not come to a point of denying God’s existence intellectually. He experienced a tragedy and made an emotional decision. That sort of thing won’t often stick. Likely, a person in that state will someday find themselves in a place of desperation and turn back to their belief in something eternal.
      The older I grow, the more I become enamored with trueness. In fact, it is the trueness I see in the life of Christ that has increased my attraction to him more, and by this I mean that Jesus never bullshitted anybody. He was brutally honest, always, even if it hurt. I suppose it was partly his attachment to being true that got him crucified. That, and his unending love for all of us crazy humans.
      I’m mentioning all this truth stuff because it’s the first thing I thought of after reading your comments. I thought, this is a person who is true to herself. So I want to say thanks for being true.
      Such a pleasure “chatting” with you.

      • It’s a pleasure “chatting” with you, too. I definitely agree that we are on the verge of a backlash due to all of the overstimulation and shallowness of our society. At least I kinda hope so… I see us going so far down this road where everyone has a screen between themselves and the world. It makes me sad. A lot of the inventions over the last few decades are marvelous, and I wouldn’t trade my computer for a pen and paper now because I type much faster than I hand-write, but I think there should be a limit. Too often people are hesitant to go out and actually experience the world. Looking at a picture on a screen, playing a video game, all of this virtual existance can never compare to real life – the genuine article.

        I can also understand what you meant now with that comment. It is true that many people who turn away from religion due to a loss or a negative emotional experience eventually find their way back. Being disenchanted with something due to emotions isn’t the same as an intellectual, more “scientific” (for lack of a better term) choice. Emotions are a very muddy thing, and someone who turns away due to a loss may also turn back in a different time of need.

        I really appreciate your comment about truth. You are right, I try to be honest and true to myself. I would never deny you your truth, either. In fact, I have deep respect for people who truly have faith and walk the walk of their spiritual and religious identity. Being true to yourself and what you believe is the only way to live life. Otherwise, how do you even know who you are and what you stand for? Thanks for the food for thought today.

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