A review of Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild inspired this review, which had one especially trenchant comment:
This guy was idolized by some my college classmates, most of whom were sheltered, relatively wealthy urbanites. They had the same vague and pathetic need for "real" experiences and arrogant expectation of success that comes from never having failed at anything in their lives.
Over the last few years I have become increasingly skeptical of the idea that any one mode of life is somehow more "authentic", "real" or "genuine" than any other, in the spiritual sense. The life you are born into and the life you live is no less a possible source of insight and inspiration than any other life that could be led.
What's more, the idea that some lives are more worth living than others seems to largely revolve around the prejudices of the speaker. Yes, I would, on the whole, rather be able-bodied and fully in command of my faculties than not — but outside of that, it comes largely down to prejudice and preference. It's entirely possible for someone to have a "real" life in the middle of the city, the middle of the suburbs, or the middle of nowhere — as long as they bring the right things to those experiences.
This business of "only the wild life is real life" not a new idea, either, and it's not particularly original or insightful. The idea that modern, civilized, industrial living is fake or inauthentic has been with us long before the Sixties — Thoreau, Rousseau, probably even earlier than that if you dig hard enough, but they gave it the cachet that we most associate with it now.
My theory is that this business of needing "real" experiences is more about having a kind of spiritual trophy to polish than anything else. It's another handy way to set yourself apart from other people — other, less spiritually-advanced, less authentic people.
That in turn raises a question: what exactly is so "spiritually advanced" about having the insatiable need to lord it over others? If you're that high up on the spiritual ladder, why rub it in peoples' faces? From what I can tell, those who are that advanced waste that much less time being absorbed in themselves, in worrying about how they measure up or compare, or how much higher they have risen than their neighbors.
I assert that I am no less "real" for having grown up in and around New York City than someone who was raised in the deserts of Tunisia. Sure, I have a different set of experiences and skill sets than a person who's far closer to the land, and I can't expect to jump straight into a radically different mode of life without being forced to drop my assumptions about a lot of things — but that's no less true for anyone in any situation.
That brings me to the other part of the comment: the business of failing.
It's tempting to tell people they need to be smacked around a bit before they can be said to have truly lived. What I don't want, though, is for that to be hijacked and turned into an excuse to smack people around "for their own good", to have "character beaten into them".
Maybe it would be better to say something like, you only get better when you play over your head a little, when you step that much further outside your comfort zone. The mistake is in assuming the further you step out at once, the better it is. Bad idea, in big part because it creates deeply unrealistic demands of people. I'd rather see a lot of people step a little out of their respective comfort zones (and have everyone benefit all the more for it) than only have a few people throwing themselves into the abyss time and again.
I am a bit of a contrarian when it comes to the whole "yes-you-can" ethic that seems to be compulsively pumped into the gullible by the well-meaning. I am not a contrarian about it because I don't want people to try fulfilling their dreams (me included); I'm this way because I don't want people (me included) to get confused about what they really want.
If you tell someone they can have anything and all it takes is effort, you are doing one of two things. First, you run the risk of giving them an excuse to be cruel to themselves — not just by setting goals that are too high to be met with any human degree of effort, but by forcing so much of how they see themselves to revolve around their success or failure in that particular mission. Second, you allow them to confuse goal with process. I don't write a book because I want to sell it and make millions (although that would be a nice thing); I write a book to write a book, to be there at the keyboard every day writing it. (And finishing it.) It took a long time to get into that mindset, and I'm a lot happier and more productive because of it.
All of us are going to fail at what we do, in some way. That's not the problem. How we think about it is the real problem. If we approach anything with the mindset that failure is unacceptable, than no amount of effort will suffice because you will always fall short of the impossible version of success that's in your head. I used to break myself in half over this. I still do, but not nearly to the same degree I used to. I guess that's progress.
[Side note: I read Wild a ways back. My impression of the book was that Krakauer did indeed have on a few too many pairs of rose-tinted glasses about his subject.]