Christopher McCandless is attributed with scribbling the words “happiness only real when shared” above the Doctor Zhivago passage: “And so it turned out that only a life similar to the life of those around us, merging with it without a ripple, is genuine life, and that an unshared happiness is not happiness…”
In 1990, after graduating from University, McCandless donated most of his savings to charity and travelled across the North American Continent for the next couple of years.
In 1992 he decided to step away from modern society. He hitchhiked to Alaska with minimal supplies, hoping to live off the land. McCandless’ journey tragically ended there. Only four months after making it to Alaska his decomposing body was found by hunters in a converted bus. His official cause of death was ruled as starvation.
McCandless’ story was the subject of a magazine article by Jon Krakauer in 1993. Inspired by McCandless’ life story, Krakauer went on to write an extensive biography in 1996 entitled Into the Wild. This in turn was adapted into the 2007 film of the same name, which was directed by Sean Penn.
McCandless’ life story subsequently became the subject of further articles, books and documentaries. Since his life story has became known to a wider public audience, Candless has become somewhat of a divisive figure. Krakauer and others have sympathised with the young traveller. While others, particularly Alaskans have felt the latter part of his travels were reckless and that his story has become over-romanticised by today’s popular culture.
I personally came across McCandless’ story several years ago. I read the book, watched the film and listened to the soundtrack.
I very much admire McCandless’ gung-ho belief that there is more to life than the nine to five rat race. However what really struck a chord with me was his handwritten comment “happiness only real when shared.” I have recently reflected on this, particularly in the context of parental alienation.
As human beings our brains are hard-wired to be social creatures. Even during prehistoric times we seldom lived in isolation from one another. Our ancestors came together and built small communities, eventually these became civilisations and finally over millennia they became nation states.
In our current post modern society, the way we communicate may be changing with the advent of new technology, however most of us still have this inherent need to stay in touch with one another, by whatever medium we choose. As did our ancestors, we consciously or subconsciously seek out friends; partners to share our lives with.
Our idea of what it means to be ‘a family’ is also changing with societal trends and changes. For example, terms such as blended families and step-mum, step-brother etc, rightly so have no less a meaning in what constitutes a family unit.
“An alienating parent will effectively ‘brainwash’ a child into rejecting the other parent.”
However in the context of parental alienation the aforementioned dynamics and social constructs that define modern societies and families do not apply. The available research and evidence on parental alienation informs us that in most severe cases, personality disorders are at the core of the alienating parent’s emotional make-up. The behaviour of such severe alienators is vengeful, malevolent, dangerous and abusive.
As such alienating parents see no wrong in destroying a previously loving relationship between their child(ren) and the targeted parent. An alienating parent will effectively ‘brainwash’ a child into rejecting the other parent. This is despite, as stated above, us human beings, being hard-wired to naturally form parental-child bonds. Evidence also informs us that such bonds still remain in place despite the most adverse of relationship dynamics. However parental alienation appears to be the exception to this theory. In essence these alienators, like other individuals that suffer from similar psychological disorders are often intensely unhappy and anxious.
As both an alienated parent and a psychiatric nurse I would argue that those individuals that perpetrate such severe alienating behaviours are emotionally incapable of experiencing such emotions as happiness and love. Anyone effected by severe parental alienation would also agree such individuals are also incapable of engaging in any form of shared parenting.
“Any happiness an alienated parent is prevented from sharing with their alienated child(ren) is not happiness at all.”
So in returning to McCandless’ statement happiness only real when shared, I have come to the following rather tragic realisation. A severely alienating parent that brainwashes their child(ren) against the targeted parent gains no happiness from such toxic behaviours; it is merely about control and abuse for the alienator. For the effected children, there is no happiness; just incredibly negative short and long term consequences for their mental health. For the targeted parent, any happiness they shared with their child(ren), simply become but memories. So arguably any happiness an alienated parent is prevented from sharing with their alienated child(ren) is not happiness at all.
However rather tragically the abuse that is parental alienation is all around us. It continues to go unacknowledged, unrecognised and unpunished. An incalculable number of parents are alienated from their children throughout the modern world. In addition to this an incalculable number of alienated children will grow up through their formative years feeling rejected and unloved. Research and evidence clearly informs us that such children are at high risk of developing long term mental health issues.
This is despite the fact we are supposed to be living in a post modern time. A post modern society that over the last one hundred years has seen scientific breakthroughs and technological innovations that have radically changed the way we live our lives.
However what kind of society are we if we continue to turn a blind eye to abuse such as parental alienation?
“Happiness only real when shared” Christopher McCandless.
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