THE BLOG
10/07/2014 03:38 pm ET Updated Dec 07, 2014

Suffering Optional: Walking Into the Wild Is a Quest of Privilege

Andy Ryan via Getty Images

If you're thinking of walkIng by yourself into the desert for three years, by all means, do so. I wish you safe passage.

Just don't expect me to applaud when you get back.

On Sunday, The New York Times devoted more than 3,000 words to a story about Sarah Marquis, a Swiss woman who trekked 10,000 miles from Siberia through Asia and Australia. She encountered marauding Mongolians on horseback who stalked her nightly for two months straight, had a bout of dengue fever, and battled near-constant pain, thirst, and hunger.

Implicit in her story is that I, the reader, should pity her suffering. I don't. I may admire her courage and unrelenting determination, but her pain -- physical, psychological, emotional -- is all her own.

Because this was a trip of choice -- she elected to go into the wilderness, to find life factored out to its root values of survival and animal instincts, to seek solitude and a kind of bliss that perhaps can only be described as a glimpse of the divine. This is an honorable quest undertaken only by the most hardy and the most driven -- with a dusting of madness.

This was a journey privilege. Marquis had a GPS device that allowed her to keep track of where she was and tell family members that she was safe each day. She was not juggling three jobs to make ends meet or was a round-the-clock caretaker for another, whether child, elderly relative, or stricken partner. She had access and choice and the wherewithal to act on these, all of which are terrific.

But not everyone is so fortunate.

I come from a family of refugees and immigrants from two worlds, some of them cast from their homes and set out into a violent wilderness of humanity not of their own making. They experienced hunger and fear, their time consumed by the pursuit of baseline survival because there was no other alternative but death. There were no gadgets of technical connectivity during World War II but years of separation between loved ones and a vast chasm of unknowing: Who was dead and who was alive? My mother-in-law had to stop her grandmother from throwing herself out of a transport train as they crossed a bridge in what was then then Austria but is now Slovenia. My mother, in China as a teen, subsisted on a sandy bowl of rice with three salted preserved soy beans for longer than she can remember.

So today, as we are confronted daily with the images of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who have fled extremists -- not to mention all the others around the world about whom we do not know -- I am unmoved to feel pity for the voluntary brushes with death that Marquis encountered.

Her trek, and that of Chris McCandless -- whose senseless death Jon Krakauer wrote about in his 1996 bestselling book Into the Wild -- always get me going. If you want to test yourself against the blistering reality of nature, then venture into that brutal landscape.

Plan ahead. Or not.

But for me, there is an implication in the telling of these tales that we all should bear witness to the suffering.

Admire their chutzpah? Beyond question. Pity the consequences of their solitary foray into the wilderness? No.

McCandless died in an abandoned bus just miles from a major thoroughfare in Alaska, too weak to hike out, a tragic consequence naïveté, crappy planning, and likely lack of respect for Mother Nature. But he left a journal, still reaching out for human connection even when he knew how his story would end.

And for all her discomfort with being around other people, Marquis, too, has been reaching out to the human world to tell the story about her trip. She has a Web site in both French and English, and a roster of speaking engagements. She also made little videos throughout the trek for, I suppose, some kind of expected audience. But who is her audience but all of us, whom she so desperately wanted to get away from -- and from whom, at the first opportunity, she wants to escape from again, with nothing but "a sarong and a knife," as she told the Times.

I'm uncomfortable with the approach of these Doctor Doolittlian "PushMePullYou-like" creatures, where the relationships seem to be so intentionally crafted to be one-sided, and all on the trekkers' terms. Sure, we can choose to not read another word, to walk away, and I will do that -- my own privilege. I am in awe of the adventures and the moments of glorious reflection and solitude. But what enrages me is the apparent total lack of acknowledgement about what a privilege that these journeys are, and how much power is inherently held within them.

Please, go ahead. You first.