Recently I observed a student teacher as she taught her high school English class and I found myself captivated by the discussion through which she was leading her students. The class had read Into the Wild, the story of a young man, Chris McCandless, who was on a journey to experience nature in its rawest form. The discussion covered everything from his desire to get away from it all to the relationship he had with his parents. I had heard of the story and knew about the basic premise (it was also made into a movie), but I hadn’t read the book for myself. I got so caught up in this high school discussion, though, that as I sat there I got on iTunes and bought an electronic copy of the book for myself.
The author of the book, Jon Krakauer, is a very good writer and, based on journal entries, letters, interviews with family and close friends, and interviews with people who befriended Chris, was able retell the story in amazing detail. Chris graduated from Emory University in 1990 and soon thereafter dropped out of sight and hit the road. He wanted none of the trappings of his well-to-do home and before setting on his adventures in the West, donated $24,000 from his own savings account to a non-profit dedicated to fighting hunger. He wasn’t a recluse per se, yet he was committed to experiencing nature in its purest form with as little in the way of supplies as possible. Besides little in the way of supplies, he was also alone. Whether in the desert, by the ocean, or in the wilderness, he was by himself. In between his alone times he got odd jobs in various communities and made connections with some of the locals. He got close (at least close for him) to a family in North Dakota. Ultimately, he ended up in an Alaska wilderness where his decisions, combined with unfortunate circumstances, took his life.
The story is gut wrenching to read, yet captivating at the same time. It is especially hard as a parent to read about his rejection of his dad and mom and to think of the anguish they went through during the years he was missing (traveling) and certainly when they learned that his remains had been discovered in an abandoned bus along the Stampede Trail. The book describes the poor relationship that he had with his parents, but even more than that it describes a young man with a ridiculously high need for freedom. One thing that Into the Wild does well is introduce readers to the many men, from the 1800s and 1900s, who had a similar high need for freedom. A significant number of them headed into mountains or deserts and were never heard from again. Whether they survived or not, though, their diaries consistently describe the incredible amounts of freedom and joy these men found in raw nature.
The story of Chris McCandless is an important one for teenagers to consider. Chris stood for so much that is good in this world, yet he also embraced qualities that separated him from others and that put him in dangerous situations. Adolescents want to understand themselves and the world better, often desperately so, and I am more convinced than ever that the concepts of choice theory can help them in their quest.
Stories like Into the Wild provide an incredibly powerful platform or springboard from which to study human behavior. I saw first hand how relevant the story is to adolescents. What an opportunity to talk about the basic needs and the quality world. Questions related to choice theory might include –
What were the strength levels of each of Chris’s basic needs?
How strong was Chris’s need for freedom?
How strong was Chris’s need for safety and survival?
How about Chris’t need for love and belonging, how does that fit into his story?
Chris had pictures in his quality world that reflected his views of wealth, possessions, and the political power structure. What basic need was met by creating these pictures?
What led to Chris choosing to disappear from his parents and family?
Comment on Chris’s choice to disappear from his parents for years, keeping them in the dark about where he was and whether or not he was even alive.
Did Chris’s parents deserve the way Chris treated them?
How accurate was Chris’s perceived world when it came to his parents?
Could Chris’s parents have prevented Chris from escaping on his adventure?
In general, why do parents and teenage children seem to go through so much angst?
How did Chris’s need for love and belonging influence the story?
Did he have a really low love and belonging need or did he just suppress it while on his travels?
How could Chris be so comfortable with being alone, yet so charismatic to people he met along the way?
Chris actually tried hike out of his self-imposed refuge earlier in the summer, but a raging river of snow melt turned him around for a more extended stay. It was during this extended stay that Chris’s health took a serious turn for the worse and he died in this remote place. Krakauer discovered a book among his things in which Chris had written in the margin, “HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED.” I would like to think that this all-caps message reflected an epiphany for Chris and that he wanted to hike out so that he could re-connect with the important people in his life. But we will never know if that was true.
Chris is beyond our ability to help him now, but we can help the adolescents in our families and classrooms who are groping to understand themselves and the world around them better. Living choice theory ourselves and sharing choice theory with the teenagers in our circles of influence is an essential part of that help.
A good read can be a great Christmas gift! Why not share the story of William Glasser and his life-changing ideas with someone that matters to you this holiday season? Amazon can help –
For a signed copy contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.