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Sunday, August 28, 2005

The Danger of Dogma

Recognize the name Timothy Treadwell? His name is fairly common these days. He is the subject of a limited-release documentary film titled “The Grizzly Man,” by German director Werner Herzog. It’s a morbidly fascinating tale about a man who spends thirteen summers in the Katmai National Wildlife Reserve in Alaska before he is eaten by an anomalously predatory bear.

There is also a brand-new book about Treadwell. I started reading Nick Jans’ book, “The Grizzly Maze” in preparation for the film. I wanted to understand Treadwell from Jans’ uniquely Alaskan perspective, before I exposed myself to Herzog’s.

At least among Alaskans, I don’t think there is any doubt that Treadwell was foolhardy and a bit of a megalomaniac. But what I have really taken from the film and the book is that, in many ways, Treadwell’s journey is not unlike the journey many of us face in our own lives. As embarrassing as it is to admit, I found myself relating to and sympathizing with Treadwell’s boiling-over emotions and passions (though I can’t say mine are directed towards brown bears).

I admire Treadwell for his chutzpah. I admire him for his passion, but don’t pity him for his grisly death – he certainly knew the risks. What I DO feel a little sad about is his “lost boy” need for an external validation that he never sufficiently received.

When I moved to Alaska, I felt like I had finally found myself. Not unlike Treadwell, I felt like I was getting away from the frivolousness of society and the big city. Alaska is a place of glorious mountains, water, and wildlife. Its weather is a kaleidoscope of color and sensation. Here, for the first time, I have finally started to feel comfortable in my own skin.

For the first year or so that I was here, I desperately wanted to communicate how wonderful Alaska is to every person I knew. But despite the fact I have had a life-changing experience here, it doesn’t mean everyone will, and I certainly don’t need outsiders telling me that my experience here is a valid one. Where I go and what I do to discover myself is intensely individual.

I can’t help but imagine Treadwell on a similar pilgrimage. The big difference is in degree, and, unlike me, he proclaimed himself a non-religious sort of person. But, like so many of us do, all he wanted was to find his place in this world.

In my opinion, the real mistake he made was not realizing that the journey he was on was not one for the benefit of mankind, or even for the bears, who were already federally protected, but a pilgrimage for the benefit of Self. (By “Self” I intend a distinction from “Ego”.) Perhaps elsewhere in his journals and lengthy video-recordings he admits this, but it is not apparent in either the film or book.

Many, many people seek to understand Self and “purpose”. Timothy Treadwell thought he had made this amazing discovery. He felt he was “chosen,” special, unique. And, admittedly, he did something that arguably no one in history had done before. There is certainly nothing wrong with wanting to find one’s niche, for desiring to belong to something greater than ourselves. In his own way, Treadwell was doing this. I endeavor to discover my Self as well. However, I’m not willing to become another person to accomplish this end (as Treadwell did several times over the course of his life).

I have seen in my church, and in society at large, a renewed interest in “purpose” and “destiny.” Rick Warren’s book, “The Purpose Driven Life,” which I haven’t read, but understand the concept of, has been enormously successful. In my church, discovering one’s God-given talents and utilizing those gifts in both career and community-service, is a very big deal right now. Even Christians, whose faith should be their only necessary identity, feel like something is missing. (Those of us religiously-designated to be humble and self-sacrificing still covet celebrity and distinction, we just want it delivered in a holier-than-thou package.)

At one point in “The Grizzly Man”, Herzog makes an interesting comment. Throughout most of his movie he seems to reserve judgment about Treadwell, letting his viewers come to their own conclusions. However, on one particular point, Herzog explicitly disagrees with Treadwell. He explains that Treadwell was often shaken to discover that even far removed from civilization, things aren’t perfect. Treadwell wanted nature’s beauty and majesty to bear witness to its innate goodness. It was for this innate goodness, specifically as manifested in the most perfect of all creatures, bears, that he was willing to die.

In contrast, Herzog’s opinion is the world is a dangerous, chaotic, and murderous place. All creatures are desperate to live, and often do so at the expense of the lives of others. I agree with Herzog. The world, both sentient and non-, is indeed a murderous place.

You cannot be a Timothy Treadwell and endure the wilderness for the duration. Self-preservation means being willing to recognize danger and admit personal weakness. Actualization often means realizing we are small and insignificant, that we are breakable. But that which is easily broken and irreplaceable is also precious, priceless. However, when Ego inflates a sense of self that becomes bigger than ones circumstances, it becomes impossible to clearly see either self or genuine danger. Vision is blurred. Too much “success” among the brown bears puffed Treadwell’s ego as the expense of genuinely understanding Self.

Facing the wilderness of Self can be the biggest challenge of all. We are not naturally good and noble – goodness and nobility are choices. Left our own appetites, we are the savages in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” or William Golding’s “The Lord of the Flies.”

Treadwell made a grievous error of pride, being unwilling to fully face his own inner turmoil. True change comes from viewing ourselves honestly, from going into the wilderness of mind and motivation, and realizing that the majority of what lies within is selfish and destructive.

The retelling of Timothy Treadwell’s pilgrimage provides a great deal of food for thought. The debate should be about more than whether Treadwell was a hero or a lunatic. Rather, we should be reminded that, he is a mirror for our own passions and convictions, some perhaps as illogical as Treadwell’s; some of which we would die for. Every person wants to be understood, belong, and live with purpose. Why do we believe what we do? Are we willing to have our beliefs challenged from every angle, or like Treadwell, do we turn a blind-eye to the danger of dogma?


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