Into the Wild, Alone

Posted: October 6, 2010 by Jim Killam in books, church culture, disillusionment, movies, nature
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In 1995, as a free-lance writer, I accepted a free trip to a media event at Walt Disney World (this was before I had learned enough about journalistic ethics to realize this was probably a bad idea). Free airfare, three nights free Disney hotel, free admission to all the parks, even vouchers for free food.

For three days during the parks’ least-busy season, I was treated like a Disney princess. I could ride any ride I wanted, see any show, eat at any restaurant … all on Mickey Mouse’s dime. The catch was, I was by myself. We journalists would attend a morning press conference about new rides and attractions, and then the rest of the day was our own.

There is a definite place in life for solitude. That place is a long way from Disney World. I have never had so little fun at such a fun place. As I watched Indiana Jones blow up an airplane, got dropped from the Tower of Terror and nearly refunded my lunch on a simulator ride called “Body Wars,” I’d never felt more uncomfortably isolated in my entire life. I’d get off the ride and there would be no one to talk with, laugh with … even barf with.

I’d just had exactly the same experience as all of those happy, laughing people getting off the ride at the same time, but all I felt was alone and very self-conscious … and that I shouldn’t walk anywhere near small kids, lest their parents think I was some pervert on holiday.

The experience was just … empty. I couldn’t wait to go home, and to come back later with my family.

In the true 1996 book and 2007 movie, “Into the Wild” — for my money one of the best films of the past decade — Christopher McCandless graduates from college disillusioned with materialistic society. So, he leaves home without telling anyone where he’s going, gives away everything he has, and embarks on a solo quest to find meaning and purpose. That led to random stops around the country, but all with an eventual goal: Alaska. The ultimate wilderness.

Before embarking on the last leg of his journey north, Chris tells his friend Ron Franz: “You are wrong if you think that the joy of life comes principally from the joy of human relationships. God’s place is all around us. It is in everything and in anything we can experience. People just need to change the way they look at things.”

Near the end of the film, though, Chris realizes that finding himself, alone, has been no answer. Facing starvation in the wilderness, McCandless writes in the margin of the book, “Doctor Zhivago”: “Happiness only real when shared.”

The prevailing thought in our culture about what someone should do when they’ve been hurt or disappointed by the church is to abandon the church, if not one’s faith altogether. Go it alone for a while. Or, at very least, find a new church.

Timothy Keller, in “The Prodigal God” writes: “Many people who are spiritually searching have had bad experiences with churches. So they want nothing further to do with them. They are interested in a relationship with God, but not if they have to be part of an organization.” Churches are often so unpleasant, he writes, because “they are filled with elder brothers (he’s referencing Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son). Yet staying away from them simply because they have elder brothers is just another form of self-righteousness. Besides that, there is no way you will be able to grow spiritually apart from a deep involvement in a community of other believers. You can’t find the Christian life without a band of Christian friends, without a family of believers in which you find a place.”

Christianity is a belief system, a personal faith. But at its core, it’s a one-to-one relationship with Jesus. You can’t begin to understand a relationship like that unless you also experience the closest thing we have to it: imperfect human relationships.

Next time: The flip side. The value of wilderness solitude, for a season.


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