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In or Out?

Christopher McCandless and Ernesto “Che” Guevara

A few months before leaving Morocco last fall, I remember trying to explain to my best friend a dilemma that has confronted me throughout my life, and that I have never fully managed to resolve. I told him that I feel pulled in two different directions in response to injustice in the world. One instinct is to withdraw and seek an island of inner peace. I want to live in some isolated place, perhaps on the slopes of a volcano near the ocean, raising bees, with a few olive and almond and lemon trees nearby, trading with neighbors for whatever essentials I can’t produce for myself, having conversations with people who come to visit me from far away, and spending most of my time reading and reflecting on what I’ve read. A variant on this theme, the nomad version, involves traveling from Turkey to India on foot, across the desert of Iran and the mountains of Kashmir, meeting people and writing down my impressions in a book which someone will discover centuries from now, after famine and war have destroyed the world we know and it is reborn in a new form.

The instinct pulling me in the opposite direction is engagement. However appealing it may be for me to drop out in the way I’ve described, I feel there is something selfish about it, since even if such an island of happiness is possible, the only person’s problems I would be solving are my own. It’s true that for those who come in contact with me I might be making things a little better, but meanwhile the cruelty of empire and the ignorance of the masses would continue their downward spiral, and I would be doing nothing to change that. Having seen inequality firsthand, do I have the right to ignore it? Is it fair that my friends in Morocco have no chance to get a decent education, vote in a meaningful election, or find work that matches their abilities, all because of the accident of their birth? Is it fair that they don’t have the right to speak truth to power without fear of being brutalized by police or thrown in jail? Is it fair that they can’t cross the same borders I can cross, to look for opportunities they aren’t offered at home? If another world is possible as the slogan goes, shouldn’t I be doing everything in my power to make that happen? Shouldn’t I find a movement for global equality and lend it my energy and my voice?

When I told my friend about these conflicting instincts, to engage in the world or to withdraw from it, he replied that it is a false choice. In reality, the two extremes are blended. To insist on one or the other is a distortion of the truth. I told him it is impossible for me to choose in any case, because both extremes pull at me with equal force. I know I won’t be satisfied with whatever peace I might find in withdrawal from the world, since it would be dishonest to pretend that the world’s problems had gone away. On the other hand, involvement in social causes can be a recipe for despair, because no matter how hard we work, there is always more to do. Those who dedicate themselves to this sort of struggle never last long unless they learn to step back and catch their breath. Perhaps this is why Gandhi and Martin Luther King both claimed a benefit to their time in prison, because it gave them a rare opportunity to think.

I’ve been struggling with these two extremes with more intensity lately, because blogging no longer satisfies me as it once did. In theory, it’s the ideal compromise between “in” and “out,” solitude and engagement, because it lets me participate in the global community without leaving my house. But blogging won’t stop the Israelis from cutting off electricity in Gaza, or Musharraf from rounding up his opponents in Pakistan, or Blackwater from shooting innocents in Iraq. It won’t get two hundred thousand peace marchers to Washington, or organize factory workers in Indonesia. Nor does it allow much time for inner reflection. When I was in Morocco, I collected a wide range of materials to help me learn classical Arabic, but I haven’t looked at them in over a year. I have a couple of hundred books in my room that I haven’t read, classics of poetry and world literature, books on Sufism and the Kabbalah and ancient mythology. Instead of these studies I care about, I surf the internet for current events. I consider this a bad habit. There will always be war, tyranny, and attempts at rebellion. The headlines might change, but the underlying reality is the same. Without a deeper understanding, the whirlwind of names, places and dates is just a veil over the truth.

As it happens, I’ve just watched two films that provide opposing answers to the dilemma of “in” or “out.” Both are the stories of young men who, dissatisfied with the experience their lives have given them, set off on journeys of self-discovery from which they will never return. Both are true stories that I was already familiar with, and that have attracted me in the past. One represents the extreme of “in” or withdrawal from humanity. The other represents the extreme of “out” or rebellion against injustice. Perhaps it’s no accident that I saw them together.

Into the Wild is the story of Christopher McCandless, a child of privilege who immediately upon graduating from college, sent his savings of $24,000 to charity and disappeared on a cross-country road trip. He abandoned his car in the desert and continued on foot. Persuaded that his parents’ obsession with wealth and prestige meant death to the soul, he turned his back on all that and began a search for what was real in himself. His journey, which lasted two years, took him across the American West, from Arizona to California to Montana, then down to Mexico and back to California again, before he achieved his dream of hitchhiking all the way north to the Alaskan wilderness. Along the way he met many people who opened their hearts to him, treating him as one of their own, and in one case even offering to adopt him as a son. Yet he always shied away from attachment, and moved on. In Alaska he hiked into the wilderness far enough to guarantee his isolation, and set up camp in an abandoned bus. Over the next few weeks he read Tolstoy and tested his survival skills with mixed results. He eventually decided to return to humanity because “happiness must be shared,” only to find that the way back was blocked in by a river in flood. He died a short time later from starvation and food poisoining, victim of bad judgment and bad luck, but apparently at peace.

Some people see McCandless as a self-indulgent kid who made a mistake, while others see him as a hero, going so far as to make pilgrimages to the bus where he spent his last days. His story was first told by journalist Jon Krakauer in an article for Outside magazine, which he later expanded into a book. When I first heard the story, I felt a mixture of jealousy and unease. I felt that I understood exactly what had motivated McCandless, because I’ve had those same urges myself. I’ve even acted on them at times, though I’ve never gone so far as to burn my last dollar, cut my driver’s license in half and walk away from everything I’ve known. The need for an initiatory test is a powerful feeling for a young man, going back to the earliest traditions of the hunter clans. Since our society doesn’t provide such a test, except perhaps for gangsters in prison or soldiers initiated into combat, the epic journey feels like a good way to discover the truth about ourselves. Such a journey has its moments of danger, because it is a confrontation with the unknown. When something happens that we are unprepared for, our response will tell us what we need to know. Can we act wisely in a crisis? Do we have the agility we need? Or are we prisoners of our fears, our false shell? The mixture of jealousy and unease I felt on hearing McCandless’ story was because he went all the way. I’ve tested myself as he did, but perhaps I held back? Perhaps the reason I’m here and he isn’t, is that he did what had to be done, while I was too cautious, and am still clinging to some residue of false hope?

Like Into the Wild, The Motorcycle Diaries is the story of a young man who walked away from his life of privilege to embark on a journey of self-discovery. Ernesto “Che” Guevara shared a number of qualities with Chris McCandless, such as impetuousness, physical courage, and extreme sincerity. Unlike McCandless, however, rejection of the life he had known wasn’t the reason for his journey in the first place, but rather came as the result of lessons learned. Setting out on an tour of South America with a friend from medical school, he came face to face with injustice. Crossing borders from Argentina into Chile, Bolivia and Peru, he learned to see all of Latin America as a nation with a common destiny. He met indigenous people who had been forced from their land, and saw the mistreatment of peasants looking for work at a mine. He told his friend, “If you think injustice can be defeated without picking up a gun, you’re fooling yourself.” When the two of them volunteered for work at a leprosy clinic, the river dividing the clinic from the patients’ dwellings became a symbol to Guevara of the iniquity in society as a whole. On the night before their departure, he impulsively swam across the river despite his severe asthma, so he could sleep with the patients on the other side. In this way, he completed his initiation by siding with the excluded and oppressed.

Unlike McCandless, Guevara survived his initiatory journey and returned to Argentina to complete his medical training. But he was soon off again, and this time he didn’t look back. He traveled north into Central America, participating for a time in the socialist experiment of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmàn in Guatemala. His commitment to social change deepened when he met Fidel Castro and joined the Cuban Revolution. He was proud of their first day of fighting when, landing on the Cuban shore and under fire from government troops, he dropped his medicine kit to grab a box of ammunition dropped by a fallen comrade. Like McCandless, Guevara never wavered once he had settled on a course of action, and like McCandless, the path he chose finally led to his death. The difference is that while McCandless sought to purify himself by withdrawing from society, Guevara sought to purify society through revolution, the ultimate form of engagement.

So which should I choose, solitude or engagement, “in” or “out”? Both Into the Wild and The Motorcycle Diaries provide examples I can admire. Both are the stories of young men who were able to challenge and inspire, transforming the lives of others through their example. McCandless helped a couple preserve their relationship when it was nearly destroyed by unspoken grief, and he showed an aging recluse how to live again despite losing his family in an accident years before. Guevara gave the lepers he worked with a new sense of humanity through the simple gesture of shaking their hands without a glove. Yet while both McCandless and Guevara inspired others, their stories are cautionary tales. Their inability to compromise drove one of them to armed rebellion, and the other to solitude in the wild. It drove them both to their deaths. One can only wonder, if they had been more moderate, perhaps they would have achieved more lasting change?

I love the ferocity of youth, but I’ve come to appreciate what the Buddha meant when he advised us to seek a middle way. “If you make the string too tight, it will break. If you make the string too loose, it won’t play.” So rather than choosing “in” or “out,” why not move in both directions at once? I’ve gotten involved in a group connected with the local Democratic Party that is discussing progressive values, like government in the public interest and respect for the earth. I plan to be participate in local elections whenever there are candidates I can support. I’ve applied to the Peace Corps, which would mean going to a country in the developing world to share my skills. And I’m committed to traveling again next year, whether I join the Peace Corps or not. Meanwhile, on the introspective side, I’ve told myself that I need to spend less time on the internet and more time doing in-depth reading. I should be writing articles that are more than flash responses to the latest headlines. There are thousands of people doing that already, and many of them are better at it than me. There’s no point in adding my voice to the mayhem. I need to get outside the echo chamber, so I can hear myself think. I will try to speak softly, in a way that gets heard above the noise. I will engage with the things I care about, reflect on it carefully, and communicate back to you.

My friend in Morocco is right. “In” or “out” is a false choice. What we need to do is to find a balance between the two. We need to engage without losing our center, and keep our center without cutting ourselves off from the world.


Comment from Lalla Mira
Time: November 23, 2007, 17:14

Almost like you, I once felt so useless when I pondered over what’s going on in the world, and found myself totally useless in the process of driving the change, at all levels. But unlike you, I didn’t go as far as having an “in or out” choice, I rather took the shortest and easiest way. I created a bubble around myself, and isolated it from all things that I can’t bring change to. News, documentaries, shows… All are part of the past for me now. I can’t help being informed about what’s going around me of course, but I no longer question events, decisions and most importantly life.
As someone said: Why wonder about the meaning of life? I’ll never find out anyways, so why bother?
Same with me, why kill myself with thinking about all the injustice in the world while I’ll never figure out why that’s happening or how to change it even a bit.
I am not telling you to surround yourself with a bubble as well, but your middle position between the two extremes is the best thing to do, in my opinion, as long as you can afford it. I personally got to learn how to detect what I can afford, and what I can’t, and I am now living in peace with myself. The feeling of guilt is always there of course, but it had always been there.

Cheer up!

Comment from eatbees
Time: November 23, 2007, 18:32

@Lalla Mira — “The feeling of guilt is always there of course….” I hate to say it, but this message is not very cheery! ;p

Still, I know what you’re saying. My mother has made a similar choice to yours, and she still finds ways to make a difference in the world on a level she can handle. She does a good job of it, too. She is active in the Botanical Garden, for example. On some days she feels powerless because of all the world’s problems, and like you she tunes out the news. But the world probably has more heroes than it needs already. No need to feel guilty if you aren’t Mother Theresa or Nelson Mandela.

I wrote this post because I’m at a point in my life where I want to ask more of myself than I have been, so I’m examining how I should do that. What can I bring that others are not bringing? Don’t worry though. It’s not a depressing feeling, honest! In fact, it feels pretty good. Of course the doubts are always there, as a friend of mine says, that “Nothing we do will ever be enough.” But that’s okay, I can handle it.

Thanks for your thoughts, and your support!

Comment from Loula
Time: November 23, 2007, 18:42

You’re a humanist neither in nor out. While the questions will always remain as vivid as a cut, you can’t go a way or another. I don’t know you, but I know that you have this eagerness to share, this talent of teaching. And just for these two reasons, I wouldn’t want to miss reading your thoughts.

See, the trouble in our way of life is not asking the right questions and you my friend asks them all the time.
Just an anecdote, the first time I’ve visited Cuba, I’ve met by pure accident a woman who knew Ernesto Guevara and she was crying while talking about the man. Even his vision has been heavily made up by those who wanted to stay in power.

Personally, I do not believe in the middle. It is just another way to keep us prisoners. Whatever way you choose you’ll always make a difference in the lives of those you meet.


Comment from eatbees
Time: November 23, 2007, 21:29

@Loula — Thanks for your kind words. Not only am I a humanist, I’m an idealist which is even more dangerous ;)

Today I was chatting with a friend of mine in Morocco who is going through a hard time (actually he is the same friend I mention in the article) and I was able to use the ideas from this post to help him look at his situation. When we first met, he had the rebellious side of Guevara, but now he is experiencing the need to withdraw of McCandless. I called those two feelings “brothers” and talked about the need that young men have to break away and test their limits. I told him that eventually he will learn to balance the two extremes and that he needs to trust the process, even though it isn’t comfortable. And he understood that.

When I say that “young men have the need to break away” I’m speaking from my own experience, and there is a long tradition to back me up, since the story of a young man’s travels and the challenges he faces is one of the most common in ancient mythology. But I can’t help wondering if there is a similar need for young women to test themselves and discover the qualities that make them unique? I’m sure there must be, but it seems to have a different flavor. Since I’m a guy I can’t really say what it is, since I haven’t lived through it. Help me out ladies ;)

Comment from homeyra
Time: November 24, 2007, 00:08

Dear wise friend :)

You might be interested in this—it goes with your theme: Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, by Charles Taylor.

There is a dicussion of his ideas here.

“Heroism was the number one moral value in ancient societies but this moral value is replaced in our modern societies by ‘The quest for the ordinary life’…. Taylor views ‘ordinary life’ as no less interesting and achieving than heroism on the battlefield.”

Comment from Loula
Time: November 25, 2007, 12:12

Hi Eatbees,
I never give compliments only my point of view:-)
Yes, you’re right we too go through the dilemna and have to choose. By the way, I am inviting you to take a test:-)

Comment from eatbees
Time: November 26, 2007, 02:57

@Loula — I took the Political Compass test a few months ago and was thinking of writing a post about it, but I never got around to it. I had a score of -5.38 on the economic scale (collective not free market) and
-8.15 on the social scale (libertarian not authoritarian). So you and I are in the same quadrant, along with Ibn Kafka and people like Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. My libertarian instincts are very strong, because I put a high value on individual responsiblity in almost any situation. That sometimes conflicts with my egalitarian instincts, which are also strong, because I think the instinct for equality needs to come from within or it loses its value. So if someone were to ask the question, “Should social equality be enforced when it isn’t voluntary?” I might answer “No” a bit more often than you, but since you identify with Kropotkin I don’t think we have much to argue about ;)

Comment from kim
Time: November 28, 2007, 15:36

To answer your question, yes, women can feel the same way; though the pressures of many societies often mask this in woman. Before I was married and had a son, I experienced a similar choice and had many discussions with a friend about working from the inside of contemporary institutions for change or without, or just dropping out and and finding a quiet place in the country to create my own “bubble”. I find the diacotomy still rages and tends to take different forms at different times in my life. In relation to school, the choice between art, which allows me to externalize and philosophy, which for me, is a more internal experience kept me from making a decision about my education well into my thirties. Philosophy won out, but now I am looking for a way to externalize the issues I have spent years pondering and I am considering the same mediums I did before. Maybe it is not really a choice, but a different path a different times in your life. Sometimes I long for the opportunity to make choices that are not an option for me as a mother, right now, but may open up to me in the future. The friend that I discussed working within society and without always chose without. He did not believe that institutions could change from within. He chose to create a his own bubble in the woods and has done very little to change the institutions he felt so wronged by; so with that in mind, I feel like participating in the larger world is the only way to change it.

Comment from Jill
Time: November 30, 2007, 10:10

First of all, wonderful post – it’s been a long time since I’ve read anything (and I mean anything) this engaging.

Second, to answer this question: “But I can’t help wondering if there is a similar need for young women to test themselves and discover the qualities that make them unique? I’m sure there must be, but it seems to have a different flavor…”

I think it depends on the woman. I see myself and my friends as falling into two general categories, with some gray area – those females who have a “nesting” instinct and work toward marriage and children (typically right after graduation from college) and those of us who fit the male mold a little more closely.

My best friend and I both, a year out of college, left all that was familiar to us and moved to “faraway” places – her to the Montana wilderness and myself to Morocco. While I don’t know her reasoning, I know that I chose that path at the time as an escape route – after working on political campaigns for the 2004 elections then realizing all of my hard work was in vain, I was so intensely frustrated that I felt the only way out was to leave the country and disown mine. After one idyllic year, however, I realized two things – that I missed a lot about the U.S. and that my particular mindset and interest was just as, if not more useful back home than in Morocco. And so another year and a marriage later, here I am.

Just my two cents.

Comment from 99
Time: December 1, 2007, 03:03

Without realization of fundamental reality, no matter what you do, you will just be a talented young man, a leaf in the stream, whether you go in or out or hew to the middle. With it, you will have the discernment to choose things like flexibility and strength in the right circumstances and in the right way… the world then teaches you recondite meanings of these Buddhist terms in every moment. In any case, the crucial thing for all these avenues is becoming competent to them before they become deadly.

Stop shopping. Karma will answer you when you are heart-level sincere. [It is never not answering you, but you can’t heed it until you are that serious.]

Comment from Hisham
Time: December 21, 2007, 05:26

Aid Mubarak Saïd… keep up the good fight!

Comment from Meatsticks
Time: December 30, 2007, 02:30

And who says modern movies are useless?…

Nice post. I just finished reading a book called “Crazy Wisdom” that I picked up for a dollar. It’s a collection of sayings and explanations of how not to play it safe. Wisdom doesn’t need to be biblical or even necessarily smart to be wise.

Sometimes, it’s just sensing something.

Nice post.

Comment from Loula
Time: December 31, 2007, 10:32

Best wishes, Eatbees!

Comment from Josh
Time: January 2, 2008, 03:03

Dear eatbees,

Please pardon the intrusiveness of a stranger. A friend just forwarded your blog to me, and as she said, it is a great post. Like you and others here, I struggled with these basic questions of what we are meat to do and how we can preserve our humanity in this big, crazy world. Might or might not be older, I believed I decided my path. Realizing that you have no choice but to let me, would you mind me sharing what two stories and some thoughts?

The first story took place on a beach with thousands of starfish washed up on the shore, waiting to dry and die. A boy came along, pick up a starfish, and throws it back to the ocean. Then he picks up another, throws it back. And on he goes. An old man on the same beach asked him, “hey kid, there are tens of thousands of starfish there, how are you going to save all of them?” The kid picks up another one, throws it in the ocean, and said, “There’s another one.”

Upon reflection, I often equated saving the whole world with doing something good and meaningful to it. Perhaps while the former is what we feel when we see the tremendous injustice, the later, I believe, is what our heart tells us that we need to do just to keep our humanity. In this vein, if saving the world would take a series of actions and sacrifices, how is helping just one family send their kid to school not a worthy enough goal endure the same actions and sacrifices? I don’t believe we need to save the world – especially if it deters us from doing something smaller that can help. We just need to do what we can.

The second protagonist is me. I majored in English in college and thought I would be happy for the rest of my life writing poetry in the subway. At the end of college I slowly understood the atrocity that is going on in the world, especially from poverty in developing countries. While I stared at a National Geographic picture of a Nigerian mother holding her baby, hooked to a soy syringe lifeline, which did not save her and the mother was said to have known that her daughter wouldn’t survive, I knew that my previous world was permanently fractured. To your choice of in or out, the answer for me was that I did not have a choice. With the awareness that gross injustice exists in the world, I simply would just could not preserve my own world. The story of Buddha has it that he was a happy prince in a closed castle, until he saw suffering, which made him go out and seek a solution. I think there is something to our humanity that we are commonly bounded. Injustice in one part of the world might not leave us safe, continued to be able to enjoy what we had.

These answers here are exactly the content of my application essays to Harvard and Stanford business schools, which are due in a few days, which is the reason I’m up at this hour, in a reflective mood, and glad to find a way to procrastinate. For the past 4 years I have worked to transition myself from an English major to a businessman (whom I previously detested) to finally work for a large consulting firm that works in international development. I have taken a volunteer trip to work for a microfinance bank in Ghana, after I earned some skills with the consultancy. I changed a product that was supposed to benefit tens of thousands of microfinance clients, which in reality, due to various political and economic constraints, might only have really helped a few families. But that’s good for me. At least I’ve made some changes. With that, I’m at peace with the decisions that I’ve made. Now I’m enrolled in a public policy school called SAIS learning the solid disciplines of development economics and international development. Next year I’ll head toward business school to learn how to use the private sector to realize development.

Sorry. This is all just to say, if you want to make a concrete difference, you can. There are tens of thousands of people, including many brilliant ones, who put their lives in building rigorous, cold disciplines around this idea of changing the world. There is a methodology to it, and something can be done. Someone as smart as you are can effect more than a few changes. If you do tilt that way, reconsider the peace crops. I have not met a single ex-PC volunteer who was very happy with what they could do. Like you said, in-depth readings and a functional skill are keys to informed decisions. Evil businesses or law firms have the disciplines and skills that can effect changes in other sectors of society.

To be honest, I was never moved by To the Wild though I expected myself to. It bugged me that I had a very narrow interpretation of it the whole time. I kept thinking, he could’ve found so much peace, and other human emotions that are as rich and worthy, working in Africa.

Sorry I’ve monopolized your space. But thank you for allowing me to share, which clarified some of my own thought. Best of luck to you.


Comment from eatbees
Time: January 7, 2008, 00:30

@Josh — Thanks for your thoughful comment, which I’ve finally read all the way through. Sorry it took me so long to reply.

Your first story reminds me of something Mother Theresa said, when she was asked how it is possible to make a difference in the world when the problems are so enormous. She replied that when she first started helping sick and dying people in Calcutta, she realized that she would never be able to help all of them, so she started with the first one and went on from there.

I agree with you that it is no excuse to say “The changes I could make are too incremental.” Sporadic rain formed the Grand Canyon. Any incremental change adds to those others are making, and it’s impossible to tell what the final effect may be. So it’s better to just start somewhere.

For your second story, I’m well aware that the comfort and security I know today, as an American, are not available to the majority of the world’s people. And I’m haunted by the idea that this security and comfort come at the expense of others. That is what pushed me to spend three years in Morocco, and if I have my way, there will be more of that in the future. I hope to do what I can to be useful, perhaps by teaching web design skills since that is one of my competencies.

I didn’t have a wake-up moment as dramatic as the one you describe with the Nigerian mother, but during a month-long trip to Brazil several years ago, I was driving with my friend when we came to a town filled with teenagers. It was Saturday night and they were all in the street, in the town’s one intersection, standing there quietly. There were hundreds of them and their eyes had a certain fire. There was nothing for them to do, no amusement in particular, so they were standing in the street between the town’s two bars. I suddenly realized how much easier it was for me to witness this, than it would be for them to come to California and see the things I took for granted. Brazil for me was an exotic adventure, but my life for them might just as well be on another planet. They would never know it.

I’m not sure if you are advising me for or against the Peace Corps, but in any case, the decision has been made for me. My recruiter got cold feet and decided that I had a “confrontational” tone of voice in one of our phone conversations. I think the real issue was that I was asking too many questions, or had my own ideas about what type of work would be most valuable for me. In any case they decided I wouldn’t be a good match for them, so I’m forced to consider other options. Which is just as well, because I think that I’m better as an improviser and freelancer, though there are times, as you say, that institutions have the “disciplines and skills” to get things done. So I’ll just have to keep experimenting! Which is fine, I’m used to it.

This blog is itself one way that I stay engaged with the world, and make a difference. You’ve probably figured that out. It’s just that I’m feeling that I need to get off my butt again soon, and give up my security and comfort to see what’s happening in the 80% of the world that doesn’t have these privileges. Then, if I can be part of the lives of people, and communicate to others who weren’t there, that will be a step forward.

You mustn’t apologize for your long comment, because communication is what this blog is about. I feel honored if something I’ve written can provoke such a thoughtful response. Besides, you’ve given me things to think about and apply to my own experience. So I hope you’ll come back here, now that you’ve discovered this space, and keep us up to date once you take the next step.

Comment from Viktor
Time: February 5, 2008, 17:34

“In” or “out” is a legitimate dilemma. I know this dilemma. There were periods in my life when I seriously considered going to Thailand or India and spending the rest of my life in a Buddhist monestary. I understand what you are saying and I totally agree that “in” is kind of selfish.

My goal was not to improve the world situation a little, but to put up with the fact that I am here and at least use it for something sensible. I feel entitled to be selfish – no one ever cared for me and, as a reaction, I never cared for the others. I have the same attitude as Patti Smith when she sang, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.”

You should not admire Che Guevara. This is not a true “way out”. Whenever you fight against world injustice with a rifle in your arms, you only create more injustice, grief and suffering. Almost all people you beat or kill are not those who caused the injustice. They are just pawns, or “in the best case” people with a different opinion.

Even if you have the best intentions, you impose your will on others. As a result, armed struggle for a better society immediately ends in tragedy, destroying the lives of many people who aren’t doing anything worse than not following your ideas. Have you seen this?

I think the shortest way to make my point is to ask: do you really think the regime on Cuba is a good one? Take my objections seriously. I am from the Czech Republic, and in Communist times we had very close experience with this.

 As a final point, I disagree that “in” or “out” is a false choice. I would say that “out” means devoting our lives to improving the situation of those who cannot help themselves, in a peaceful way. I think of Mother Theresa, Gandhi. “In” has its sense as well. In spiritual development, each degree of personal progress improves not only our own, but also the collective karma.

Comment from eatbees
Time: February 5, 2008, 18:53

@Viktor — About Che Guevara, maybe you misunderstood what I was saying there. I don’t admire him. Sometimes I admire his intensity, and I think his ambition to change the world was admirable, but I feel that he made a mistake as soon as he picked up a gun. To me, Gandhi and Martin Luther King are heros. Einstein is a hero. Che Guevara is not. So I’m not holding up Che’s life as an example. In fact, I think I represented it as a destructive extreme, just as “In the Wild” is an extreme. So my own answer to “In or Out?” is “neither,” or to put it another way, “both at once, balancing each other in compassion.” Guevara and McCandless showed an absence of compassion, above all to themselves. That’s why they ended as “martyrs.”

When you say, “Almost all people you beat or kill are not those who caused the injustice,” it’s an excellent point. Violent revolutions are for impatient people. Maybe they bring change faster, but they also cause more damage. Is the damage worth it? Or is it better to endure injustice for forty or fifty years and bring change slowly, so that people are not killed, and lives are not destroyed? I believe in social justice, but I also believe in democracy. Too often, in the eyes of violent revolutionaries, people are slow to understand what is best for them. Yet I think they should be allowed to make their mistakes and learn from them. The problem with revolutions is that they tend to bring violent people to power. In places where democracy has won peacefully, like Indonesia, Bolivia or the Czech Republic, your own country, the change may have taken longer, but in the end it produced a happier result.

Surely, Russia deserved a change in 1917, Cuba in 1957, and Iran in 1977. In all these cases, the secret police were imprisoning people unjustly, torturing them, assassinating enemies. I understand why revolutions happen, and I suppose that if I’d been young at that time and place, I would have been a revolutionary too. On the other hand, in all these cases it took a generation or more to recover, and more lives were destroyed by the revolution than before!

You ask if I think the Cuban regime is a good one, and I don’t have a simple answer for that. The movie Before Night Falls shows a very dark side of the Cuban regime—destruction of culture, persecution of homosexuals, criminalization of dissent. On the other hand, the revolution brought an end to the mafia police state, and provided health care for everyone and universal literacy. I have no idea what it would be like to grow up in Cuba, or how the compromises of living there would compare to the compromises I’ve made in America, so I find it impossible to judge. I know the Cuban people don’t have many of the freedoms I take for granted, such as the right to leave their country, surf the internet, or choose the leaders they like.

I believe in evolution, so I believe that humans are able to improve their conditions over time. I believe that no ideology can capture the truth, and I’m against even “well-intentioned” ideologies. I believe in universal justice, and the right of the world’s citizens to limit the power of the rich and powerful. Right now I’m in the middle of a book called Manifesto for a New World Order by George Monbiot, which comes very close to describing how I feel the world should be governed. It proposes a global parliament elected by the people as the only meaningful solution.

On the question of “collective karma” I share your idealism, but I have no evidence to prove it. The Buddhists and other mystics believe that a few people meditating in caves can keep the world in balance. If this is true, then their actions are more significant than anything else we can do, even though they seem to be doing nothing! Something in me wants to believe this, but can I prove it? Of course not, because there is no objective evidence. I have a young friend in Morocco who is a rationalist. I’ve given him the best arguments I can that there are “spiritual states” our senses can’t perveive and our minds can’t reach. He remains unconvinced, and I have to admit that he is right. What is beyond our senses and our minds can never be proven. It might exist, or it might not, but we will never be able to demonstrate that it is anything more than “wishful thinking.”

Comment from Viktor
Time: February 9, 2008, 05:41

Hello Eatbees,

About Che Guevara – I read your post thouroughly several more times: O.K. you don’t say he was a hero but my feeling from it really is that you present him as in fact a positive example (“…Sometimes I admire his intensity…”), although you don’t agree with the way he’d chosen.

I must react – someone who intensively believes in nonsense and decides to change things violently does not deserve to be admired even for “his intensity”. According to this logic, you would have to accept that many Germans, surrounded by the economical crisis
of the 30s, became convinced that their race is superior to others!

A large part of the globe knows from its own experience that Socialism or Communism in practice don’t work. Everyone who tries to fight for it with a gun, should be stopped.

About the evolution – I totally agree with the whole your paragraph “humans are able to improve their condition over time…” To me it shows that only your perception of Che Guevara is different from mine. We – living in the former East block – are rather sensitive to things like this.

About collective karma – your friend in Morrocco is not right. Or better, being right is not the point. His opinion is not more true that mine. This is what keeps the world’s balance. But to be at the safe side – let the people in caves do their job.

Comment from Juniper
Time: February 26, 2008, 18:59

I stumbled across your blog randomly, and found this post that very eloquently expressed exactly the dilemma that I myself have often felt. It’s nice to hear it put into words so clearly.

Thanks, eatbees.

Comment from Tarry
Time: August 22, 2008, 22:44

I am a 47 year old woman who is going back to school to finish my degree. My English Comp class requires reading Into the Wild. Im not sure what to think of this young man. I have a young son, so I guess I’m looking at Chris’s story from a mothers view.

I found reading all the comments posted has given me a greater insight to him. So thank you, I believe I just might pass this class.

Comment from eatbees
Time: August 26, 2008, 15:04

Tarry, welcome and I’m glad this post could be of use! As it happens, I saw the movie with my mother and we both felt it was an excellent film. But I identified more with McCandless and his drive to test his limits, while my mother was wondering whether his problems could be “fixed” with the right mix of love and understanding. The tragedy in his case is that he needed to go as far as he did before he realized that “happiness is not real unless shared,” and by then it was too late to come back.

Thakns for your visit, and good luck in your class!

Comment from Ottomaro
Time: November 30, 2008, 04:53

This was just beautiful to read everything and all of it, and I don’t want to be a bother and I will add my own analysis. Che Guevara and Alex Superstram are both as a passionate and romantic, true heroes, different paths though, the main congruence though, “They both followed their “hearts”(minds) and forged their own path in what they believed what made them happy”, my best advice do this yourself, do not follow che guevaras path, or Alex’s path, but your own, make your own road unique and equally rich in experience as theirs in what you think it’s your passion.

Comment from Marikay4
Time: December 17, 2008, 08:43

Thank you!
Oh man I love you. I know the pull you feel myself despite being female. Not all females focus on their bills and shoping being their biggest problem bubbles. Make me angry those kinds of comments. I was sitting here feeling very uneasy like you that I don’t believe either way was right for them and knowing of their sad end. starving to death because you didnt stop to think of geting a map or a trail guide to help out a bit or something… just a driver dumping you on a trail no one is gonna find till a wee bit after dead. couple weeks before he’d been saved. No they found his body two weeks late. The bus pisses me off. way beter ways to camp and keep warm than a bus/sleeping bag bla bla bla. I felt horrible it ended at year 24 and not him 60 talking about walking the globe. It was really bothering me because I feel the two pulling forces myself and have tested myself similar to your thoughts and I was so happy to see how you ended this. So perfect. Budhha was a pretty smart guy once he lived past his twenties. Oh and I love the comments about your mom. sometimes its the smallest things that make a difference. I want to start posting info on products that give part of proceeds of items to needy like Paul Newman dressing. 100% of profit helps people in need. That way people who spend spend spend and try to bubble themselves into spending sprees still help change for the positive.
Thank you!

Comment from Marikay4
Time: December 17, 2008, 08:55

one more quick note to some of the comments on violent revolutionaries. The French revolution is the best example why violent revolution is not a good thing. Like you said, it distroyed more over and over again eventually even beheading the dude doing the beheadings ending up with France in more and more problems that run through the empire to the world wars so on so forth….

sorry, just wanted to point that one out being the history student. Thank’s again! I loved this post.

Comment from eatbees
Time: December 19, 2008, 07:02

Marikay4, thanks for letting me know that what I wrote touched a chord.

By all evidence (like his last photo) Chris McCandless died happy or at least accepting. Does that help? Like you, I certainly would have liked his story to have a different ending, so he could go on learning once he’d passed that test. But if it hadn’t ended the way it did, it wouldn’t have touched us and we wouldn’t be talking about it, would we? Maybe there’s something to be said for that.

Here’s a question: Does anyone “die in vain”? I’ve often wondered about that. I suppose the person who never took a chance, is worse off than the one who tries some crazy thing and falls short. As the poet said, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.”

By the way, I checked out your website and your art is amazing !!

Comment from jose luis
Time: July 24, 2009, 11:39

man, i liked what you wrote, it realy move me, i think you apreciate life and your analysis of both, Che guevara and mccandless are fenomenal. im trying as well, to find a balance in my life, and what you have posted here help me a lot


Comment from sheila
Time: July 28, 2009, 14:23

Some humans think along the same lines……

Comment from arturo
Time: January 5, 2010, 00:22

my friend read you books, think for yourself and act with your heart, that definetly will help you in the journy of life, and remember both, guevara and mccandless, died, but first they found their truth, in the end we will find death, but just a few find their true destiny. (sorry for my english, i am from costa rica and im not use to write in this language), thank you for your article , and keep the fight, never back down.

Comment from Anaïs
Time: March 9, 2010, 12:06

How many times have I thought about that? Great post :)

Comment from Marcos
Time: April 27, 2010, 21:28

“Many will call me an adventurer, and that I am, only one of a different sort: one who risks his skin to prove his truths.” — Che Guevara

To me Che Guevara is one of the most heroic figures in world history who is a stoic example of what all those who speak of “revolution” should espouse to be.

This was a man who left a bourgeoisie comfortable life of the upper class, a potential well compensated career as a medical doctor, and a high regarded governmental position, each time to slog through the jungle and fight guerrilla wars against impenetrable odds = for a better and more equitable society.

Throughout his life Che tended to thousands of sick campesinos, helped construct dozens of schools throughout Cuba, worked in a Leper colony to helped those afflicted, and even when he was literally tied up in a small mud school house awaiting his own execution ! , still complained to the local teacher that in a nation where the leaders drove Mercedes … it was a travesty that the peasants were taught in a dilapidated place like he was in.

If the world had 100 Che’s … or hell even 10 … we would be in much better shape.

Comment from Marcos
Time: April 27, 2010, 21:29

“After graduation, due to special circumstances and perhaps also to my character, I began to travel throughout America, and I became acquainted with all of it. Except for Haiti and Santo Domingo, I have visited, to some extent, all the other Latin American countries. Because of the circumstances in which I traveled, first as a student and later as a doctor, I came into close contact with poverty, hunger and disease; with the inability to treat a child because of lack of money; with the stupefaction provoked by the continual hunger and punishment, to the point that a father can accept the loss of a son as an unimportant accident, as occurs often in the downtrodden classes of our American homeland. And I began to realize at that time that there were things that were almost as important to me as becoming a famous or making a significant contribution to medical science: I wanted to help those people.”

— Che Guevara, August 19, 1960

Comment from Mancs
Time: September 27, 2010, 17:57

The experiences we go through in life are made special by the people we share them with !!

Comment from Boshemia
Time: April 7, 2011, 23:33

Greetings and Salutations. I came across your blog while writing an article on Chris McCandless. You have a very eloquent style, and I am honored to have found you.

As I was reading this post, I found so many common points… all the while wondering if you knew that girls have similar struggles quite often… we just take somewhat different paths.

While I love the outdoors, I know I could never do what Chris did. That doesn’t stop me from wanting to. From the moment I discovered Chris McCandless and his remarkable story I knew exactly why he lived the life he did.

I had my wild days, and I did some pretty stupid things. Any one of which I know realize as the mother of three teenagers were STUPID. If any of my kids even thought of hitchiking, or taking off into the boonies with total strangers, or wandering off into the wilderness totally alone and unprepared… A small part of me would die. Yet I did all of those things… and far worse.

While males and females often experience the same feelings – they do tend to show them in very different ways. There are always exceptions to the rule of course… since your post was written many women have visited the Magic Bus. At least one died trying to get there.

Anyone who would attempt the trip must see something of a kindred spirit within Chris McCandless. I plan to visit the Magic Bus myself someday, because an idealist recognizes another idealist when they see one. We are kindred spirits.

The outcasts of society have always existed. The rebels. The recluse. The saint. They have often been considered mad men. Accused of being insane. Dangerous even.

Idealists are so often artists in one form or another, sometimes without even realizing it. They are always trying to paint a picture of the world. Not as it is now, but as it could be, and perhaps even should be.

In or out? I find that I rather enjoy both.

I believe you were right on the money when you mentioned idealism. Idealists can’t help but try to change the world. We are romantics, we are dreamers. We are Bohemain’s.

All very much alike in that we feel we must walk our truths. Even if it kills us. We must walk it.

Thank you for your beautiful and thought provoking words.


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