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In or Out?

This post was originally published on December 10, 2007. If you would like to comment on it, please go here.

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.