Dear Prudence

Last night, we watched the movie “Into the Wild” which tells the story of Christopher Johnson McCandless, who walked into the wilderness of Alaska to live off the land and do battle with some personal demons.   After 113 days, he died of starvation.  The story brings up some very interesting questions about society, “prudence”, and responsibility.

“Society!  So – ci – e – ty!!!” yells Vince Vaughn in a bar scene.   His character is bonding with Chris in a less-than-articulate but heartfelt acknowledgement that we fuck each other up regularly.  Parents and children, systems, administrations, organizations, rules, protocol and expectations.   It’s all pretty neurotic when you step back and look at it.   Some days, maybe most of us would like to walk to Alaska to get away from it all, to experience the freedom and dignity of making our own choices and engaging with the world head on.   After 100 days of complete solitude, Chris writes that he is lonely.  I think of that Life of Mammals scene with all the baboons on an African mountain.  We are social animals; it’s in our DNA, and we can’t walk away from that.  Maybe that’s another part of life to engage head on.

The first time my mother met Steve, she made a comment about him being “prudent”.  He denied it immediately.  To him, ‘prudence’ has to do with conforming to the cultural norm for being sensible.   However, other definitions indicate “wisdom, judiciousness” as its characteristics.   Chris had no desire to conform to any cultural norm; to him, the culture was hypocritical and dishonest.  It wasn’t sensible at all.  His personal wisdom and judgment seemed pretty embryonic, which is probably why he wanted to challenge it and gain maturity through experience.  He was certainly intelligent.  But why didn’t he take the time to prepare more thoroughly for his wilderness adventure?  Why did he choose not to use a compass or a map?  Why didn’t he tell anyone where he was going or make any emergency plans?  Those decisions bring up the question of responsibility.

It seems that most people assume that our primary responsibility is to survive.   Many people held Chris responsible for his return from the wild.   The fact that he didn’t return led many to suspect that he was basically suicidal.  Are the oldest people in our society the most “responsible” ones?   Is cheating death for as long as possible the mark of wisdom?  If we’re all going to die some day, our success in survival is simply an incremental one.   It seems to make life about quantity.   What about quality and the way we live?   Would it be responsible to sacrifice your life for something you value highly?  Some people believe that Chris was doing that.  They think he was a hero.  Others think his adventure was “a pointless fuck up”.

Prudence in Death Valley: wear a hat, bring water

This judgement about what is responsible is the stuff that made me a neurotic mother.  Am I “responsible” for navigating the waters of life for myself , my husband, and all my children?  How much responsibility do I take?  Which risks are worth it?  Do I allow my kids to walk to school alone, to learn to drive, to travel?   Do I ‘allow’ my diabetic husband to eat ice cream?  If someone in my family dies, does that mean that I have failed?  We’re all going to die; does that mean I’m doomed to fail at life?  You see – this can start a very vicious cycle of paranoia and dread.  Is it wise to live with that?

I think that I used to abdicate that issue of responsibility and pass it on to God.  I figured He was responsible for my life and my death, and I was off the hook.  That was useful for a while.  My grandmother used to hedge her bets by saying, “Trust in God, but do your homework.”   I suppose that’s useful advice as well.   I find that Buddhism gives a useful perspective, too.  It says simply that life and death is what we’re given, and that we can choose how we live.  Jim used to say, “I can be sick and miserable or I can be sick and happy.  I choose happy.  Pain is inevitable; misery is optional.”   All good stuff to think about.

One thought on “Dear Prudence

  1. This is really the biggest question of all, isn’t it? To whom are we “responsible?” There are so many reasons we may be responsible to others, but what does it mean to be responsible to yourself? How is it “responsibility,” and can it even be defined in terms of yourself alone, or does it mean yet another form of responsibility to others anyway?

    I haven’t even gotten past whether I own my earlobe. Good luck.

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