A Hopeful Home
I am always being asked to name a book or film that has had a big influence on my life. It seems to be a favourite question for job interviews and workshop icebreakers, but it is not the easiest to answer: as the context of my life continues to change, so too have my answers. So I thought it apt to ask myself this question again as I reflect on the first year of running Ākāśa Innovation. And this time, I turn to Into the Wild and the insightful lessons it has provided me.
Into the Wild is a non-fiction book written by Jon Krakauer, which was later adapted for a film directed by Sean Penn. For those of you who haven’t read the book or watched the film, Into the Wild tells the journey of Christopher J. McCandless. After graduating from Emory University in 1990, Chris suddenly gave away his college fund to Oxfam and left his family to start a solo adventure across the United States with just a few possessions. He travelled for almost two years under the moniker of ‘Alexander Supertramp’ until he decided to take on the ultimate challenge of hitchhiking the Stampede Trail in Alaska to spend a few months ‘in the wild’. He happily sets up camp in an abandoned old ‘magic bus’, but after 100 tough days he finally dies of starvation.
I share little in common with Chris. I have neither rejected modern society nor ventured out into the wild. However, I found three lessons from Into the Wild that I have also learned over the past 12 months and helped me better understand the purpose of Ākāśa Innovation and my role within.
Self-compassion is a cure for guilt
Jon Krakauer described Chris McCandless as a bright student, who “came into the world with unusual gifts and a will not easily deflected from its trajectory.” He was also a great athlete who “viewed running as an intensely spiritual exercise akin to meditation”. He would think about all the evil and hatred in the world and imagine to be running against the forces of darkness, one of his teammates recalls. And so Chris went on a risky ‘run’ into the wild to purify himself from the evil and prepare himself for his return into society. However, he went on a run that was too harsh for him and got lost in the wild.
I might not share his abilities, but I have experienced the same sense of running against evil in an attempt to make life for others a bit better. Over the past year I have met many people running a similar never-ending marathon. However fulfilling and enlightening our work may be, it is often driven by a sense of guilt. We feel partially responsible for the precarious state of the world. We feel we have a duty to fix what’s wrong in the world. We feel that our gifts, whatever the may be, are not to be wasted. So we dedicate our minds, bodies, hearts and souls to ‘save the world’; whether we work to promote change within a community, an organisation or support a cause.
Like Chris, we attempt to purify ourselves, only to find out that it doesn’t quite work like that. We live in a highly complex and interconnected society that is apathetic to the suffering of most people and of the planet and feel disillusioned in our ambition to make a difference. As Margaret Wheatley suggests in her book So Far from Home: Lost and Found in Our Brave New World, we have to give up saving the world. “But we do not give up our work,” she stresses. The first step to live a meaningful life that truly helps other people and the planet is to free ourselves from this sense of guilt. Embracing self-compassion – something Chris lacked – is the first step towards freedom from guilt.
Self-compassion helps us cope with failures and risks and allows us to continue running the marathon without being utterly exhausted. In her book Self-Compassion, Kristin Neff defines three main aspects of self-compassion we can all practice in our everyday life:
- Notice your own suffering;
- Be kind and caring and responsive to that suffering;
- Acknowledge that imperfection is part of the human experience (I recommend reading What’s Wrong With Ordinariness? written by Michela Palese, our Community Engagement Intern).
By enlarging our circle of compassion to include ourselves too, we not only better prepare ourselves for the run by building confidence and resilience, but we also renew our connection to others. Practicing self-compassion is critical for avoiding burnout and allowing the journey of making positive impact in the world to be enjoyed.
Ostracism doesn’t change the world
Chris had a relatively happy and comfortable upbringing and his rejection of modern life should not be interpreted as a sign of any mental illness. He might have been an extremist but Chris was no psychopath. Intrigued by the writing of Leo Tolstoy, he had been guided by a committed moral rigour that deeply worried his loved ones. He described his own quest to free his authentic self and find reconciliation with the cosmos, the ultimate freedom:
Two years he walks the earth. No phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes. Ultimate freedom. An extremist. An aesthetic voyager whose home is the road. Escaped from Atlanta. Thou shalt not return, ’cause ‘the West is the best.’ And now after two rambling years comes the final and greatest adventure. The climactic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual pilgrimage. Ten days and nights of freight trains and hitchhiking bring him to the Great White North. No longer to be poisoned by civilisation he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild.
(Alexander Supertramp, May 1992.)
Chris’s vision is rather tempting. I struggled for quite some time to find an authentic self that reconciled a felt obligation to be an active member in society with the pressures imposed by society itself. This past year has been particularly revelatory. I faced criticism, rejection and apathy from different quarters that all denied my chosen role in society and me very ‘being’. I got upset and cried many times, and contemplated running away in the wild to find inner peace whilst singing Eddie Vedder’s lines: “Society, crazy indeed / I hope you’re not lonely without me”.
But burning my money and going off the grid doesn’t change the world, it rather hurts the people who love me and believe in me. By leaving society behind and going on a very personal quest, Chris gave up his hope in humanity. As Margaret Wheatley reminds us, “We cannot change the way the world is, but by opening to the world as it is, we can discover how to be warriors for the human spirit.”
Hope that things will change for the better has been my driving force for most part of my life; how can I now get rid of it to become a warrior? A few months ago I interviewed Deborah Frieze, an entrepreneur, activist and the author of Walk Out, Walk On and she told me that we have to give up hope. There’s strength in doing this whilst still doing the work anyway, she continued: “I don’t have a hope that something will shift; I have a commitment in that this is my work to do.”
So I invite sustainability leaders to embrace the world as it is and keep working even in the face of criticism, failure and apathy. We must build resilience and find hope in hopeless situations if we wish to create a world for all life to flourish in, as our co-founder Dr. Mark Spokes explored in his talk “Hope In A Hopeless Situation” on Day (37) of Summer and in his blog post “Hope Dies Last”. Quoting Theodore Roosevelt in her book, Daring Greatly, Brené Brown reminds us that we are the ones in the arena; our faces are marred by dust and sweat and blood; and if we fail, we do so while daring greatly.
“Happiness only real when shared”
Chris left behind everything about his old life but his books. He cut any communications with his family, donated all his money to Oxfam and went on a long adventure to find his way in the wild with few material possessions because “it made the journey more enjoyable”. The last person Chris met before getting lost in the Alaskan wilderness recalls Chris’s opposition to carry even a watch with him: “I don’t want to know what time it is”, he declared. “I don’t want to know what day it is, or where I am. None of that matters”. So he went on alone. And it is at the end of July 1992, upon finishing to read Doctor Zhivago that Chris achieves what he had been looking for: “NATURE/PURITY”, “he printed in bold characters at the top of one page”. Alone, lost in the wild, away from all civilisation, he noted: “HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED”. He was ready to return home, to re-enter civilisation as a member of the human community, but didn’t survive to fulfil it.
Notwithstanding the enormous support I have received from various people over the last year, the journey as the Chief Empathy Officer of Ākāśa Innovation has been a lonely one at times. There have been days working long hours that have alienated me and left me without anyone to share the joy with. I have sometimes pushed my limits to the extreme to help Ākāśa Innovation flourish that I could not fully appreciate the journey. But I found a path out of this loneliness. The unconditional support of our co-Founder, Dr. Mark Spokes, helped, as did the words of Margaret Wheatley: “What matters is now: how we live, work and create together in this very moment, relying on and cultivating our best human qualities, creating meaning by how we are together in the present moment”. I discovered that it is the people who travel with me who allow me to experience true happiness.
Building a home
The tragic story of Christopher J. McCandless inspired me to be more self-compassionate and accepting of my own imperfections. This has allowed me to fully celebrate the impact I have as Chief Empathy Officer and the impact Ākāśa Innovation has on its community. Chris’s story also encouraged me to become resilient to criticisms and failures, as well as hopeful that my contribution to society is an essential one. Finally, it has reminded me that it is the journey and the people I travel with that allow me to experience pure happiness.
Now I am ready for a new chapter in the journey of Ākāśa Innovation. It will be my commitment to invite more sensemakers and changemakers to join me in this journey towards self-compassion, hope and happiness.