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I'm a Refugee at Heart

Anthropologist Loren Eiseley, whose life and career was a brilliant search for meaning and whose books are a romance in language, called himself “a refugee at heart, a wistful glancer over fences.”

I love that description and find so much in it to identify with.

All my life I, too, have been a seeker: for love; for purpose and meaning; for affirmation of whatever skills I have learned; for an expanding awareness both in my soul and in my mind; for an embracing of wonder and beauty, of ecstasy and delight; a seeker of a simple goodness inspired by a generous heart.

These remain longings of mine.

I have also been a fugitive, an alien of sorts, a defector escaping the confines of suffocating rules and stifling beliefs; a person displaced in a setting of so many contradictions.

I was born a captive and have struggled all these years to be free.

I had loving parents and amazing grandparents.  And as a boy I enjoyed all the things boys do.  I played with toy soldiers and marched them into battle under the kitchen table.  I used to love to wear a pair of fake pearl plated pistols in a fake leather holster and a white cowboy hat and shoot imaginary outlaws in my back yard.  I liked girls and sneaked kisses from them behind the trees at the back of the playground at recess and told all of them I would marry them.  I played baseball in the summer on a grassy ball field down the street from my house.  I learned to spiral a football and watched it sail into the hands of my buddies from school. 

My adolescence was neither stormy nor awkward.  I grew into it confident that somewhere out there in high school life would really get interesting.

But then the restrictions of church and the rigid religious values of my parents began to be enforced.  I was not allowed to go to school dances or even movies.  Sex of course was a secretive forbidden urge that teens, and certainly I, needed to avoid; something to dismiss at all costs if a young person was going to be a good Christian; even if denying it was detrimental to one’s own sense of being human; even to one’s own sense of self-worth.  It’s a wonder I didn’t wander off into all sorts of mischief with that kind of pressure on me to be religiously vigilant but somehow I managed to deal with sex in a healthy way.  Rules, I learned, were made to be broken.  And there are some things that are going to be discovered even if God is watching.

All these years later, after so many good and strange and sorrowful and beautiful experiences, I am still seeking; I’m still a refugee at heart.  There is that line in Bob Seger’s great song, “Well I’m older now but still runnin’ against the wind.”

These thoughts lately reminded me of one of the most emotionally jarring movies I have ever seen, Sean Penn’s 2007 spellbinding film adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s amazing book, “Into the Wild.”

The movie captures completely the moving and true story of 20 year old Christopher McCandless.  Just graduated from college and facing a bright future in law school he was nevertheless restless and troubled about life.   From a loving home but one fraught with high expectations, Chris felt overwhelmed with a need to get away.  A guileless, wide-eyed idealist, he longed for space, for relief from the confining standards of people.  Worn down by the meanness of others, by the constant quarreling of society, he took off to Alaska to find peace in the grandeur of nature.

There is a scene in the movie where Chris tells a wheat farmer of his plans to go to Alaska.  He tells him he wants to be “out there, out in the big mountains, rivers, sky, game.  Just be out there in it, you know?  In the wild.”  And then he reveals this:

Christopher McCandless: You know, it’s about getting out of this sick society.  Society!
Farmer: Society!
Christopher McCandless: Society, man!   You know, society!  Cause, you know what I don’t understand?  I don’t understand why people, why every fucking person is so bad to each other so fucking often.  It doesn’t make sense to me.  Judgment.  Control.  All that, the whole spectrum.  Well, it just…
Farmer: What “people” we talking about?
Christopher McCandless: You know, parents, hypocrites, politicians, pricks.

Sadly, though, what Chris discovers is that nature, too, is harsh and often unforgiving in its standards as well.  He keeps a journal of his entire adventure and despite the fact he is struggling to survive the formidable Alaskan environment, he remains.  In one of his last journal entries he writes, “I know now how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong.”

After months in the wild, Chris, half starved, froze to death in an abandoned bus and was found by moose hunters two weeks later.

I know what he was looking for.  Down deep in many of us, we seek a freedom, an affirmation, and the hope that out there somewhere there is a place where life is truly good and there is a peace that welcomes all of us restless refugees at heart.

© 2013 Timothy Moody


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