It’s fashionable, I’ve noticed, for people who are setting off on some great journey or other, to go to painstaking lengths to explain how society had driven them to it. That the brave new world which man has created has become so awful and unbearable and at odds with either their soul or spirit or intrinsic nature, that they simply had to getaway from it to go and be at one with the real world, elsewhere.
This tendency can be found in all sorts of places: from dusty books in the libraries to drunks in the bars to the stories on the television. One of the best popularisations of it is to be found in the film adaptation of Chris McCandless’s fatal voyage Into The Wild, a true story of a promising young American donating his life’s savings to charity and taking to the austerities of the wilderness. It is a film I loved, and one I thought about a lot before our own odyssey. “Society, I hope you’re not lonely, without me”, were the tongue-in-cheek lyrics from Eddie Vedder’s soundtrack that I couldn’t shake from my thoughts before we left.
But now I wonder if my – if our – admiration for Chris McCandless and disdain for society is misplaced. If the postmodern obsession with telling ourselves how terrible things have become is not only patently incorrect, but also deeply damaging. If in fact we should be more grateful for what society is doing for us, and recognise that more often than not the only reason that people are lucky enough to go off on these soul-searching endeavours, is because society has permitted for it.
In truth, I could never locate in myself the same passionate dislike of civilisation that drove McCandless to Alaska, and ultimately to his death. When James and I left Portland on 16thAugust 2016, I was never running away from anything. Life was good: I was happy, healthy and loved. What more can one ask for? Really, I’m not just writing that as some rhetorical tool, I genuinely want to know: happy, healthy and loved. What more can one ask for? And if I had stopped to think about it – which, as you might imagine, I have had time to do since – I might have realised that, actually, society provided the conditions to allow me these things.
As such, to suggest that I was fleeing something would not only be grossly unfair to my family, friends, and girlfriend of the time; but a grave injustice to the billions of people, past and present, who have not had – and will never have – the opportunities that have been bestowed to me. And I don’t mean the opportunity to sail around the world with my mate; I mean simply the opportunity to be raised in homes where food on the table was never in doubt, where education was not only valued but guaranteed by law, where I could receive free healthcare around the clock, where I could do and be – and aspire to do and be – anything I wanted to do or be. I was not running from anything three years ago, only jumping at the opportunity of a lifetime.
Society is all well and good for the privileged Caucasian male, is the likely rebuff to this, and it is a valid one. Indeed society clearly hasn’t been so good to everybody, but – and this is a monumental but– as Stephen Pinker meticulously lays out in his book Enlightenment, Now, modern day civilisation is in fact bringing these opportunities to more and more people around the world. Chapter by chapter, Pinker provides overwhelming evidence that everything is getting better: life expectancy, health, sustenance, wealth, inequality, peace, safety, democracy, equal rights, knowledge, quality of life, and happiness. So the civilisation that the countless Chris McCandless’s of the world have decried and abandoned is in fact the same civilisation that is gradually making the world’s population more happy, more healthy, and more loved. Again, what more can you ask for?
Obviously I am not arguing all is well in the world. Much progress remains to be made, but the point is the world is progressing. The lives of the masses are getting undeniably better, and so few people realise it. And as for the developed world, sure, it can look pretty ugly to me when I read the news, pretty materialistic when I walk down the high street, and pretty shallow when I scroll through social media. But these are not bad problems to have. They sure beat the daily pre-Enlightenment concerns: will I lose another child in labour? will I be tortured and executed for standing up for the subjugated? will I starve to death this winter? As Barack Obama so elegantly put it, “If you had to choose one moment in history in which you could be born, and you didn’t know ahead of time who you were going to be… You’d choose right now.”
Chris McCandless was heavily influenced by the writings of Jack London and Henry David Thoreau, romanticists of the great outdoors in pen, but less so in practice. Excerpts from both authors covered the inside of the abandoned bus that his body was found in weeks after he had starved to death: “The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening.” Presumably McCandless didn’t know that he would starve to death at the point of writing this, but it is painfully and tragically ironic for us to read that now, knowing his fate as we do. Indeed he might have ‘harvested’ some majestic sunrises and sunsets from his bus in the Alaskan wilderness, but being the ‘intangible’ things that they are they do not feed a hungry belly. If you consider McCandless’s privileged background then his starvation can come across as a scathing disregard for a life that many millennia’s worth of Homo Sapiens strove for; and if you consider that the life saving’s he gave away went to Oxfam to feed those who society has left still hungry, then McCandless’s own starvation is even more painfully and tragically ironic.
Rather than London or Thoreau, I think McCandless would have been better off in the hands of Seneca, whose Stoic wisdom doesn’t seem to have been eroded by the 2000 years that have passed since he lived.
“If you want to know why all this running away cannot help you, the answer is simply this: you are running away in your own company.” – Letter XXVIII, Letters from a Stoic, Seneca
This was a lesson I learned on our trip. Not that, as I said, I was running away from anything, but the idea that tropical paradises and nature’s innate beauty would fill in any missing gaps in ones life quickly came in for questioning. Slowly I realised that it was hopeless to rely on external conditions – no matter how beautiful – for happiness. Happiness, although aided by the foundations of civilisation, ultimately lies within. As Seneca notes, “Where you arrive does not matter so much, as the sort of person you are when you arrive there.”
And so, as James and I sit this afternoon in Cherbourg, France, just 60 nautical miles short of the shores of England and the completion of our circumnavigation, I would like to offer some reassurance to those concerned that we might not assimilate back into society particularly smoothly. Society is a fine place to be, or at least as fine a place as our species has managed to conjure up, and we look forward to it. We look forward to making up for lost time with family and friends, to immersing ourselves into community, and to rooting our feet somewhere having been leafs on the wind for so long. Society is far from perfect, that is for sure, but it almost certainly isn’t as bad as you think. After all, in the last three years we have seen many places in the world that would benefit from more society, rather than less.
And so without further ado. Home, James. And don’t spare the sails.