December 2008 - Vol. 25

It Is not Good for Man to Be Alone

– and not just at Christmas time

By Dr. Martin Steinbereithner

Early in September 1992, moose hunters found a decomposing body in the wilderness of Alaska. It was the corpse of Christopher McCandless, a 22 year-old university graduate from the East Coast of the US. Two years earlier, just after graduation, McCandless had set off on a hitchhiking trip across the US, but not before giving all his savings of $24,000 to the charity Oxfam, abandoning his car in a flood plain and burning all the money he had on him. His journey took him across a good part of the Eastern United States, jobbing here and there, hooking up with hippies and tramps, yet always on the move, with the aim of reaching Alaska. McCandless was deeply inspired by the writings of Tolstoy and Thoreau, and his journey was a pursuit of Rousseau’s ideal of innocence, freedom and independence. But he was also driven by the profound hurt and resentment inflicted on him by a dysfunctional family – money, reputation, success were things his parents pursued, even if it meant living a sham, always fighting with one another to the brink of near divorce. This confirmed for him that happiness is not found in civilization, capitalist pursuit and bourgeois living, but in “new experiences” and finding oneself. 

So McCandless drove on, making friends but then abandoning them in his quest for solitude and self-fulfilment. He met Ronald Franz, an old widower, and became good friends with him (so much so that the latter wanted to adopt him). At some point Franz pointed out to him that he needed to learn to forgive – whatever his parents had done to him. Franz should know, since he had lost both his wife and son in a car crash with a drunk driver. Eventually McCandless, who by now was calling himself “Alexander Supertramp,” made it to Alaska and lived for more than three months in the wild, living on rice, small game that he shot, and wild berries. It is likely those berries were the cause of his death, he probably mistaking poisonous for edible ones.

Supertramp’s diary is the basis for the current film version of the story (Into the Wild). One entry is both profound and tragic: “Happiness is only real when shared.” It seems that he tried to make it back to civilization, but the river he had forded on the way in was now too high to cross. So he stayed – and died. Watching the film, I was reminded of a verse in the first book of the Bible: “It is not good for man to be alone.” Contrary to Walden's and Jack London's view, escaping civilization and returning to the primeval state of hunter and gatherer is not the path to happiness. Society in the original sense of the word – companionship, friends – is the place where human beings become themselves. Or as the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber put it: “Through the Thou a person becomes I.” Supertramp would of course argue that his most intense experience of companionship, namely his family life, had left him deeply jaded and skeptical. And he is right: enemies will hurt you, and so will friends, and everybody in between. Human relationships will at times lead to pain, hurt and disappointment.

Only forgiveness allows us to continue to be friends, to continue to be human. But running away is not an option. Jean Paul Sartre claims that “hell is the others,” but in fact evil is in each of our hearts, and we will meet it even in the wilds of Alaska. And when we discover beauty, joy and contentment there, as we inevitably will do, they will be imperfect if we cannot speak to others about them. So who are you sharing this year’s Christmas happiness with? We hope it is not just a reindeer.
Dr. Martin A. Steinbereithner is a member of the Servants of the Word, an international ecumenical brotherhood of men living single for the Lord, and the Director for Mission Development for the Sword of the Spirit in Europe, Middle East & Africa. He grew up in Vienna, Austria, and currently lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

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