|Wilhelmina "Billie" McCandless at the bus in Denali State Park |
where her only son starved to death in 1992.
The young lady, Marissa, whose mother is a journalist, strikes all the right notes in hindsight about her own arrogance and recklessness.
Her mother, however, remains enchanted by her daughter's travels, enough so that she wrote a story for a Boston paper about the phenomenon of like-minded "travellers". They visited the site of a fatal New Orleans warehouse fire where eight homeless kids were killed in December 2010. Marissa's parents likely offered this child everything, in the temporal sense ---- but the mother has no discernible wisdom. Lest I sound uncharitable, let me try to understand.
It's more than simple privilege, found empty by mounting teen angst. Or maybe it's not. Too many adults build lifestyles of material accumulation that most teenagers (the healthier ones, in my opinion) come to revile. They have urges, if not insight, that direct them towards something more raw. Marissa's friends often re-connected with former classmates on their treks. They described wanting bonds based in something more than casual interactions at school. Adolescence and its surging hormones mean that we're drawn towards intensity. Our nameless urges will find a home somewhere.
While cleaning up breakfast dishes, I thought of Christopher McCandless. His tragic Alaskan odyssey is seen in Sean Penn's artful movie, based on Jon Krakauer's book Into The Wild. Christopher's story was different in the sense of personal isolation, but he was rejecting similar expectations. I've never left a movie more angry and achingly sympathetic with the same character than I did with Marcia Gay Harden's portrayal of his mother. By accepting the holy vocation of motherhood, we're each susceptible to sharing her fate.
Young Christopher was something of a blooming mystic, acutely tuned to darkness and suffering. Positions have been cast about regarding his mental health. We don't know what ailed him, but it's clear that he found his sensibilities unwelcome in his parents' world, so he left. We risk alienating our kids when we force our ideas of success and progress into their lives. Here's the bigger risk: we aren't giving them enough to hold onto, to survive against, to stake their identity and loyalty to. Decades of sociological research have clearly defined the stages of development: parents lose their appeal around age fifteen.
Catholic culture has the answer. (surprise!) Both the Roman and Eastern traditions reveal our individual dignity through accepting our roles in the Body of Christ. As an aside, I'd argue that teens may seek group association, but largely as a means to defining themselves. "I know I am a (fill in the blank) because I'm with these (blankety blanks)." For better or worse.
Lame Sunday School is not enough.
I'm aware of what I ultimately ask of my children by inviting them into Mother Church. Our oldest daughter is preparing for her First Communion in May, which is her first decisive reach for the sacraments and her salvation, without her parents. May she be a prayerfully hard-headed woman in all of her travels.