Consideration of the implications of a quote in Into the Wild

The human mind is a strange thing. Given limitless potential to achieve, limitless opportunity to see, to feel, to appreciate, it often fails to act as logic would dictate. Sure there are a few, but many—too many—people simply live out their lives in a sea of mediocrity: in a world of “good enough,” a world of “yes! I did it,” and most sadly, a world of “been there, done that.” From the earliest age we are conditioned to believe that things need to be “good enough” and that accomplishment, functional accomplishment, is the most important, the most satisfying thing in the world. There is nothing wrong with accomplishment, there is nothing wrong with “yes! I did it,” but people forget the more important thought, “Now, how could I have done it better?” People think that functionality, the goal is the important thing, the pinnacle of achievement; they forget the elegance: the method, the experience. They work for the end, not for the means. This is not how Thoreau thought, and its not how Chris McCandless thought.

“No man ever followed his genius till it misled him,” Thoreau begins. The subtly of this remark is hard to catch and equally hard to digest, to follow one's genius is always to be misled. The point that Thoreau makes as he continues is that the path one is misled from may not have been the correct path. The divergent path, “the road less traveled”, if you will, can be the right path, and as Frost noted, that can make all the difference. Thoreau declares this is “a life in conformity to higher principles,” where though “the result were bodily weakness…no one can say the consequences were to be regretted.” Even without elaboration, Thoreau has already stated an essential truth: in the end, functional accomplishments are irrelevant to the essence of an individual. Life is not a to-do list, life is a trip; life is not “done,” life is lived.

Too often, we forget the means and look at the ends. “The ends justify the means,” goes the Machiavellian perception of life. Yet, who ever actually enjoys an end, who is truly fulfilled by it? A bridge can be built, but how many people love the bridge? They appreciate not the bridge but the ability to cross the river. Are there ends which people would enjoy? There are some lofty goals that people might enjoy, to have a disease cured, for example. Even then, however, people appreciate not the cure, but the lack of disease. Is the end important? Yes, diseases ought to be cured. The problem is not in seeking the end; it is letting it justify the means. The means, the method, should not be forgotten. Most people would like to see diseases cured, that is the purpose of modern medicine, but who, given the ability to design the system from scratch, would design the modern medical system with its current mix of insurance companies, huge pharmaceutical profits, competitive research, and so many clients overlooked for their lack of ability to pay.

How does this apply to Chris McCandless? It applies to him because he saw the mistake in society. A common end in today's society is to make money. McCandless had the means: he was supposed to be an extremely able businessman, but that would mean spending a life in a job he didn't care for, just to make that money. He was in conflict with his family. Most people would agree that peaceful father-son relations is a good end, but to accomplish it Chris would have had to compromise his beliefs. Instead of succumbing to these societally pushed ends, Chris did what Thoreau did before him, he took to the wilderness. He went out and saw a world in which society's belief in function had not yet reached, where there was still natural beauty. As Thoreau advises, he greeted the day and night with joy—throughout his travels all those he met would probably agree on that point, he was nearly always described as having a cheerful disposition.

This epigraph was found highlighted in Chris's copy of Walden. It is no surprise, those are words he believed, words he lived by. He saw the means; he took the experience. What did Chris's trip across the country functionally accomplish? It accomplished nothing functional. How did it effect the world? It made people he met along the way feel emotion: happiness for meeting him, sadness for losing him. It let him have a happy life, it let him live his life the way he wanted. It allowed, as Thoreau wrote on the subject, “All nature [to be his] congratulation and [gave him] cause momentarily to bless [himself].” Bless himself he did with his last known written words “I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD. GOODBYE AND MAY GOD BLESS ALL!”