Oprah’s book list and mine rarely overlap. But last week I decided to read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. Maybe I tend to enjoy reading about long journeys on foot, but I decided to give this book a chance, despite Oprah’s endorsement. Since it was popular enough to be made into a movie, perhaps it would be worth reading.
Cheryl Strayed lost her mother in 1991 and then hiked the 1,100-mile Pacific Crest Trail four years later to sort out the spiral of suffering that followed her mother’s death. Her descriptions of topography, the physical toll of the journey, and her own motivations are written in a rough and clear style – as is the “finding yourself in nature” notion popularized by Thoreau over a century ago and which lives on in our own time, as in the quest and tragic death of Chris McCandless in Into the Wild.
But Strayed relates her most piercing insight at the start of the narrative. Her non-smoker mother is dying of lung cancer at 45, and she prays that her life be spared:
I prayed and I prayed, and then I faltered. Not because I couldn’t find God, but because suddenly I absolutely did: God was there, I realized, and God had no intention of making things happen or not, of saving my mother’s life. God was not a granter of wishes. God was… ruthless.
She has stumbled upon God, but God as Brute Fact, not as Tri-personal Love. With very little religious upbringing, she meets God the way our toes meet furniture in a dark room. It’s there, it hurts, and it doesn’t care what you want. She shares a grievance with illustrious predecessors: Job from the Bible, Orual from C. S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, and Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof.
Impersonal imagery recurs throughout the hike narrative. There is the vast sky, the foreboding mountain range, the trail-concealing snow, and many other elements and creatures that simply don’t evidence a divine concern for human well-being. Despite her aversion to the contact of God’s impersonal presence (she thinks) in the death of her mother, she spends this time on the Pacific Crest Trail and impersonally harsh nature in an attempt to find herself.
To put it another way, she’s seeking self-knowledge. And that can only be acquired, Strayed asserts, by venturing beyond normal civilized conditions. Which is frequently the case: In long periods of silence or in adverse conditions, we learn about ourselves, the world, and God. We can often manipulate situations in everyday life. You can’t manipulate the Sierra Nevada.
In the end, she does seem to come to a healing, a new self-knowledge. But there is a knot that still needs to be untied, and I’m not convinced she unties it in the course of her story. She set the goal herself. She drew a line from here to there on a map of the trail and set out for a definite span of time, energized by her considerable will-power. She fed that will-power with literature, repeated phrases, and memories of family members. All of her motivations seem to come from the inside, instead of something drawing her by its own power or significance. There’s a bit too much self in this self-knowledge.
Let me explain. Religious shrines, as opposed to wilderness locations, tend to draw people toward a goal as a magnet draws filings. Hilaire Belloc walked to Rome because Ss. Peter and Paul died there. Pilgrims to Jerusalem brave suicide bombers and checkpoints to see the empty tomb. The place draws you or pulls you. The difficulty with “salvation by wilderness” is that there’s no destination except what you make it. The hiker knows she cooked up this idea herself. These ventures leave one feeling stronger and more confident, yet one never meets anyone except the Self. There’s a missing piece in that uber-frau solitary perfection of Strayed’s story.
That missing piece is another Person who sets the agenda. I can’t heal me. When Charlie Sheen tells us he is going to get better on his own, we are understandably unconvinced. I am my biggest problem. Charlie Sheen is Charlie Sheen’s. We need something outside of us to fix us. If we plan the whole business ourselves, the same problems we’ve always had will continue in one form or another. There is indeed something noble and purifying in the trek that Ms. Strayed undertook, but I think it ought to lead to more enduring relationships with those close by, especially with the One who is closer to us than we are to ourselves. The pain of self-knowledge should lead to God, whose “ruthlessness” can now be seen in a clearer providential light.
Image: Round Top, Pacific Crest Trail