You may have seen the movie trailer already: a 24-year-old woman (played by Reese Witherspoon) conquers the mountainous Pacific Crest trail, all alone. She’s fresh from grief and divorce. The long hike over the mountains and through the coast breaks her and then mends her.
It’s Wild, a December Hollywood release, based on a memoir by Cheryl Strayed. The book is deep, wacky, bold, funny, intelligent. She writes up a storm and throws language around with passion and fervor, kicking and screaming as she does it, yet evoking universal human sensibility. You feel scared when she gets lost on the trail, anxious when she loses her hiking boot, pained when her feet are macerated into a bleeding pulp and she loses her toenails. She laughs at herself, yells at herself, and journeys through a lively tale of self-arm-wrestling and soul-dialogue. Fraught and conflicted, she weaves immense beauty out of that inner turmoil.
I consumed this book, inhaled it with the ravenous hunger of an adventure addict.
But my reaction was mixed. As I was reading, I toted a combination of a niggling guilt (for enjoying the book) and a niggling distaste (for what the book stood for).
Why do I feel so conflicted?
In pop culture, I’ve recently encountered a lot of women on trips to find themselves. (For example, you might recall Julia Roberts in the movie version of the book, Eat, Pray, Love.) All of these women get divorced, do something crazy, travel the world, go through pain and then live to write about it. Break-ups seem to inspire the most fascinating travelogues.
These women re-create themselves, stick it to the system, forge their own path. “No,” they say, “I defy society’s desire to pin me to the ground, to imprison me in the shackles of identity by marriage or confinement by standards. I will make my own standards.”
I react really strongly against this “leave it all behind” mentality.
It seems like such a selfish escape from responsibility, from relationships and from real life. In Wild, for instance, Cheryl Strayed turns to sex, then to nature in order to fill the void left inside of her as she seeks to escape her mother's death and suffering. If only she would see that God alone fills that void!
But my struggle runs deeper. I have issues with the idea of people leaving it all behind.
As I think about it, I realize there’s a part of my own negative reaction in which I really need to face some past hurts. I’ve actually had really good friends, Christian friends, who have decided to “leave it all behind” for the sake of Christ. They decided to leave our church community and to become missionaries...and yet inadvertently hurt me in the process of leaving.
It’s a long story, filled with many misunderstandings and wrongly held assumptions. But in the end, even though my friends had no intention of hurting me, I was deeply wounded.
So sometimes, I want to lash out. I want to judge anyone who is going to “leave it all behind.” Christian or not.
I wrestle against this propensity to judge. I know it’s wrong, yet it rears its ugly head so readily!
Sometimes, though, I’m reassured when I remember that there are actually two sides to the “leave it all behind” coin. Yes, there can be a selfish, senseless casting off of everyone you love and care for because you want to please yourself. But there can also be a selfless purging of things of this world (like the monks of old), for the sake of Christ.
As I prayed and meditated and asked God about my own negative reactions, the Holy Spirit showed me that it’s time for me to look into my own heart.
Maybe I am judging those who leave it all behind because I’m jealous. Because deep down, I just want to escape responsibility and leave it all behind too. Maybe I need to stop judging. Because I will never know what is or was truly in other peoples’ hearts when they go to “leave it all behind.”
Or maybe leaving it all behind doesn’t have to be a physical escape. Maybe I also need to purge, and let go of some things that have too strong a grip on me. To forgive. To relinquish bitterness. To remember that as believers, we don’t own anything: we are simply the UPS deliverers of the world, meant to deliver God’s extravagant love to others.
Indeed, scripture tells us that as believers, we are all fellow travelers, aliens in this world. We are all on an adventure, homeless and wandering through this world until we reach our heavenly home.
So whether we stay with our conservative 9-5 job in North America or go off on a great missionary adventure, we are all journeying through this life, learning about two key things:
1. Our own inadequacy and sinfulness
2. God's extravagant, mighty, boundless love for us.
May God give me the daily grace to leave it all behind, clinging only to one thing: an awareness that I am far more sinful than I ever dared to think, but God’s love for me is far greater than I ever dared to hope.
Maybe it’s time to let go and embark on that wild, wacky adventure, after all. Not an adventure with mosquitos, hiking boots, and granola bars, but an adventure with courage, faith, and selflessness, armed with the love of Christ on this journey called life.
Julia Cheung is a cultural analyst and journalist of relationships, always on the lookout for stories of beautiful misfits. She lives in Vancouver BC with the loveable motley crew of her pastor husband and two preteen children. She is a bundle of antitheses, a lover of truth, a teller of tales, a too often emotional egoist and a fervently curious anti-narcissist. You can find her online at wifeinredemption.com.