As kids, the only reason we are afraid of the edge is because our parents told us we would fall off of if we got too close. Being mere children, our fears overwhelm our curiosities. Little did we know that the older we get, the farther away the edge becomes. At that point, just a sliver of curiosity is all that matters. One can only feel so alive when they feel trapped in a society that doesn’t reflect who they are.
Suddenly, the edge doesn’t seem all that scary, and individuals who are inherently unsatisfied with the environment they belong to want to charge towards the edge, to explore what lies beyond the confines of their reality.
Examples of this phenomenon would be Chris McCandless from Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer and Henry David Thoreau himself in his account, Walden. Into the Wild depicts Chris McCandless’ journey across America and into the Alaskan wilderness, in an effort to embark on a spiritual journey to find inner peace by immersing himself in an environment removed from poisonous civilization.
McCandless became overwhelmed in the society that he lived in, and was set on overcoming the influences of his environment because they did not comply with his true character.
On the other hand, Walden is Henry David Thoreau’s account of the two years during which he retreated to live in a cabin in the middle of nature, and the book acts as a basis for Thoreau’s philosophical system to live by pure ideals.
A theory concerning character and how it is influenced throughout an individual’s life is explained by Malcolm Gladwell in The Power of Context. He recognizes what scientists and psychologists claim that humans enter this world with an inherited set of raw traits that get sculpted and shaped by the environment and events individuals encounter throughout their lives.
Beyond the influences of nature and nurture, however, Gladwell argues that: “the features of our immediate social and physical world – the streets we walk down, the people we encounter – play a huge role in shaping who we are and how we act” (Gladwell, 165).Even though the ideas behind the Power of Context show a relationship between character and the immediate environments that people are exposed to, certain environments can have extreme effects on the character of specific individuals that do not align with those of others in the same situation.
Such examples are those whose have a nature to question society, an inquisitive but almost rebellious character that is not compatible with the environment they are exposed to. As individuals who didn’t fit in with their immediate environment and fled, Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Thoreau’s Walden address the issues explained in the Power of Context while countering certain aspects of Gladwell’s theory.
Through the Power of Context, Gladwell explains his belief that behavior ultimately stems from the environment that one is exposed to, as that is what shapes the character of humans. Gladwell contends that character” isn’t a stable, easily identifiable set of closely related traits…Character is more like a bundle of habits and tendencies and interests, loosely bound together and dependent, at certain times, on circumstance and context” (Gladwell 163).
McCandless exemplified this idea, as his true character was neither stable nor easily identifiable. Quite the contrary, as he possessed a character so unique that it was absolutely unpredictable, one that can only be evaluated if both his past experiences and environment are taken into account.
By looking through Gladwell’s lens, the relationship between Chris McCandless’ story and the environment he was exposed to can be seen. It is true that the environment that McCandless was exposed to throughout his youth ultimately led him to his journey in the Wild. However, this was not because his society drove him out into the wild – as a matter of fact, he drove himself out voluntarily. If McCandless had conformed to the environment he was exposed to, he would have just been like everybody else his age.
Chris McCandless left because he personally did not fit in the environment he was in, and his mind was not at peace with his life. He was unhappy, and he needed an idealistic goal to restore his peace of mind. This resulted in a decision to stray himself away from society and towards the edge, where he would never look back. In Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer states: “McCandless isn’t some feckless slacker, adrift and confused, racked by existential despair. To the contrary: his life hummed with meaning and purpose” (Krakauer, 220).
McCandless believed he had to test himself, to truly show he stood behind his spiritual ambitions. In a way, he was simply different – reckless in the eyes of his peers but merely principled in his own mind. “He possessed grand—some would say grandiose spiritual ambitions. According to the moral absolutism that characterizes McCandless’ beliefs, a challenge in which a successful outcome is assured isn’t a challenge at all” (Krakauer, 219). Through this recognition of moral absolutism, the general definition of character is altered.Emphasis is now placed on the bigger picture – not focusing on the individual’s character in relation to his environment but rather the collective environment and how it fits together.
Reflecting similar stark contrasts from society like McCandless,Thoreau explains in Walden that most people live their lives as if they are sleeping, blindly following the ways of their parents, and become trapped into these lives by slaving in jobs to maintain their way of life. In order to combat this society, Thoreau sought to discover the true meaning of life and built a cabinnear Walden Pond where he lived for two years on his own, with a lot of time for contemplation and nature.
Through his time, Thoreau created a new existence for himself at Walden, as he found joy and fulfillment in nature, truly awakening in his mornings while most of society remained perpetually asleep. Through time, Thoreau said the key to achieving a happy life is merely “simplicity”. Over the duration of his stay at Walden Pond, he begins to see in himself certain impulses to animality and spirituality, and seeks to strengthen his spiritual self. At the end, Thoreau explains that he left Walden to live out the rest of his life, however he encourages people to turn to immense spiritual journeys of self-discovery; to find fulfillment in nature rather than riches, and to avoid conformity.
On the surface, both Into the Wild and Walden seem to be highly similar in respect to their ideas of personal virtue and individualism. McCandless and Thoreau embarked on a spiritual pilgrimage, exhibiting intellectual curiosity concerning the meaning of life and rediscovering their moral values. After some time at Walden Pond, Thoreau writes, “The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched” (Thoreau, 171). Thoreau became humbled by his experience, returning home from Walden with peace and tranquility within.
McCandless, on the other hand, had a more intense experience, yet still rediscovered himself after an instance where he shot a moose for food but intensely regretted it afterwards it provided too much meat for him to preserve. After this experience, McCandless wrote: “I am reborn. This is my dawn. Real life has just begun. Deliberate living: conscious attention to the basics of life, and a constant attention to your immediate environment and its concerns” (Krakauer, 210). This shows that despite his tragic death, McCandless found peace before he died, finally feeling free in both his environment and his mind.
Despite these resounding similarities, Thoreau and McCandless’ paths diverge in the extent at which they view society as a whole. Thoreau seems to recognize the limitations of society, merely encouraging his fellows to a different standard of living with a cultured mind and spirit over valued possessions. On the other hand, McCandless became so distasteful of society from the start that he, rather than simply attempting to transform and better society like Thoreau, decides to simply distance himself from society forever.
In addition to this, Thoreau and McCandless also contrasted in the way they used nature. Thoreau went to Walden Pond with a set purpose for improving himself and his spirituality; to be exposed to the simplicity of nature in order for him to reach his ultimate goal. McCandless on the other hand set off into the wilderness with no real plan other than self-fulfillment, displaying a less organized and more impulsive character than Thoreau.
For years, people have tried to figure out what drove McCandless to such radical behavior, some even labeling him as reckless. However, McCandless’ story cannot be fully interpreted through the ideas presented by the Power of Context. Despite that fact, it also does not serve to reject the entire theory as a whole. Gladwell’s theory aligns with McCandless’ tale in the sense that his “escape” into the wild cannot be boiled down to internal egotistical and/or sociopathic problems that McCandless may have had.
However, his story also cannot be explained through society directly leading him to his subsequent actions. The only true explanation of McCandless’ behavior lies in his true character, shaped by his life circumstances, that did not fit in the society he happened to be in. In this case, circumstance provided a stark contrast between McCandless’ personality and the environment he was exposed to. In fact, due to his unique character, McCandless could not find peace within himself because he wasn’t able to fit in the society he was a part of.
This fact also applies to Henry David Thoreau with his spiritual journey in Walden. He explains in the beginning of Walden that he does not have peace within himself because he sees society living blindly, being followers instead of explorers and trapped into lives of labor. However, this is not due to any character-related issue with Thoreau, it is because Thoreau’s inquisitive and curious character did not fit with the monotonous society he was a part of. This led him to embark on a spiritual journey to find true peace within himself.
Through these comparisons, it can be seen that despite their similarities, both the characters of Chris McCandless and Henry David Thoreau do not comply with all facets of the Power of Context theory. Thus, the question remains: Where does this certain “rebellious” character trait come from? This question is answer by a study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information, where it is explained that there exists a gene-environment correlation for most life events. This means that the genes that influence certain personality features also increase the likelihood of being exposed to certain life events.
Borderline personality disorder was used as an example, as it was stated that: “In individuals who had experienced a divorce, violent assault, sexual assault, or job loss, environmental variance for borderline personality disorder features was higher, leading to a lower heritability of borderline personality disorder features in exposed individuals.” These results are supported from another study from Springer Science Media, that stated: “the findings (of this study) confirm the predictive power of identity theory in explaining the moral person”, showing that personality does in fact display a predictable path for events throughout one’s life.
As a result of this, a whole new perspective is given on character. Instead of each individual having a core set of traits that are molded and shaped by their life events, this study argues that certain genes that individuals may have increase the likelihood of certain events occurring. Even though this can be debated, both the characters of Chris McCandless and Henry David Thoreau can be explained through this study. Therefore, it can be emphasized that certain actions are not only caused by the environment that one is exposed to, but also by how a person fits into their environment altogether.
Some individuals are more unique than others in the sense of how they react to events in life. Some stay on land, protecting themselves by either conforming to society or adapting to it. However, some go towards the edge, refusing to conform to society and unable to adapt to it. Such is Henry David Thoreau, who returned back home after two years in Walden a new man ready to live his life in peace.
Unfortunately, Chris McCandless happened to fall off this very edge, as his soul-searching journey into the Wild led to his death. Nonetheless, Chris McCandless found peace before he died in an environment where he could expose his true character, and despite his arguably reckless behavior, this must be respected. In the end was character, not circumstance that gave both McCandless and Thoreau the courage to reject the facades of society and instead walk towards the edge, where true peace awaited someone as spiritual and genuine as they were.