Doug Bruns

“It is a question of understanding my destiny.”

In Philosophy, The Examined Life on December 5, 2021 at 11:38 am
In the fog. (Photo by author)

The quote above is lifted from an entry in Kierkegaard’s journal. Here’s the fragment I jotted down in my notebook:

“What I really need is to be clear about what I am to do, not what I must know….It is a question of understanding my destiny.” (Journals & Notebooks, vol. 1, p22.)

It was the first sentence that caught my attention, “What I really need is to be clear about what I am to do, not what I must know…” Let me put this out there, front and center: I have spent most of my life in the pursuit of knowledge. (I hope that does not sound too pretentious.) If I am plagued by anything it is, What do I need to know? What book do I read next? What is the next course of inquiry to pursue? These are the questions of my hungry ghost. I credit / blame my parents for this.

I was raised in a household that believed, in the religious sense, that salvation was to be found in books. Not all books, but specifically those leading to spiritual growth and enlightenment. We were a household of Christian Scientists. We did not claim a personal relationship with a supernatural being, did not claim to have special other-worldly insight, did not practice the laying on of hands, nor speak in tongues. We were not contemplative. We did not have preachers, or ministers, or rabbis; there were no clerics to turn to for guidance, instead we had books.

And we were close readers—specifically, readers of the Bible and the textbook of Christian Science, Science and Health, by Mary Baker Eddy. I left the church, to my mother’s dismay, in my early 20s, but, as the saying goes, you cannot escape your biography. It is impossible to leave behind everything from your childhood. Indeed, perhaps it is impossible to leave anything behind, those artifacts linger and hang on long after their specificity has expired. So it is that my reading habit, the soul-saving discipline of my upbringing, and the notion that books held the promise of salvation, did not fade away—but the focus tectonically shifted from the religious to the profoundly secular.

So when my Danish friend makes a distinction between what he must know and what he must do, I take notice. Kierkegaard gave me pause.



In the spirit of the ancient Greeks—Know Thy Self—I have spent the better part of the last year examining the artifacts of my existence. There is really no other way of putting it. If one considers all the stuff one has absorbed, the stuff taken as fact, the stuff believed, the stuff practiced, aspired to, hoped for, longed toward, desired, rejected, abhorred—if you take all that stuff, what I’m calling artifacts, and throw it all out, what remains? That is the question I’ve been investigating most recently. It’s been a practice in deep epistemological skepticism.

This path has taken a round-the-barn route to a place I visited about thirty years ago, the habitat of the Existentialists. The backstory: Rene Descartes, in a fit of skepticism, came to the conclusion that there was but one thing he could count on: He had the capacity for thought, and from there he concluded that he must exist. “I think, therefore I am,” he declared, setting the course of modern philosophy. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the idea was seriously challenged. Hold on, said the Existentialists, you’ve got it backwards. You exist, therefore you think. That is, you can’t do anything without existence, it’s primal. As I said, this is turf I’ve hiked before, but the hike of the young man is different from the 66 year-old. The trek carries real import now, the horizon being in sight.

This is the place I now find myself, and the reason Kierkegaard’s journal entry spoke to me so deeply. What to do? When all is tossed aside, only the clean slate of existence remains. There is no refuge to be found, no safe harbor, no doctrine or system to fall back on for comfort. Have you ever wiped clean the hard drive of a computer? If so, you know what I’m taking about. A factory reset erases everything and you begin again.

It is not the question of what you need to know, but what you must now do! So, “What I really need is to be clear as to what I am to do….”

Nietzsche had a clever response to this challenge. Imagine that life repeats, he suggested, over and over again, eternally. It is an uncompromising thought: If you don’t welcome the thought of living your life over again, you are not living it right. Welcome to Groundhog Day, The Movie. I share the passage in it’s entirety:

“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’ Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’ If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and everything, ‘Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?’ would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become towards yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate confirmation and seal.” The Gay Science, 341, pp 273-274.

In other words, aspire to live in such a way that you wish each and every moment of your life to recur eternally. You are a sculptor and life is a block of marble. What will you do with this wild and precious life such that you welcome repeating it?


My desire for knowledge isn’t going away, nor should it. It is part of my DNA. But as I re-write the hard-drive of my existence I will practice the art of doing, in balance with the art of knowing. Perhaps there, at the intersection of the doing and the knowing, the art of living is to be found.

The Grand Canyon and other philosophies

In Life, Philosophy, Travel on November 13, 2021 at 2:47 pm
The Grand Canyon

I’ve been engaged the last couple years in correspondence with a young man in prison. He is a family friend who made a bad decision. He has a bent for big ideas so naturally the two of us have had a great deal to talk about. We had a recent exchange, a portion of which I wish to share with you here. So here we go.


Greetings from the Grand Canyon. Thanks for your most recent letter. You had some interesting things to share which I want to get to in a bit (the motivations for doing something, doing it for the parole broad, for credibility among the other inmates, and so on.) But first an update. I’ve had the good fortune to see a lot of cool things in the world. I’ve been able to go to places like China to see the Wall, Nepal to see Everest, and so on. Yet I’ve never seen anything like the Grand Canyon. We went to the North Rim first. There had been a snowstorm a few days before and about 3 inches of snow remained on the ground. It was cold and the campground had a heavy canopy of Ponderosa Pines so it was dark, making it all the colder…After leaving the north rim, we traveled four hours around the canyon to the south rim. Goodness! From the south rim you see all the way down into the canyon and can trace the Colorado River twisting and turning. You have a clear view across the canyon, and the layers of sedimentary rock are fully exposed, giving you a glimpse into the evolution of the planet of almost 70 million years… I’ve been reading John McPhee’s, Annals of a Former World. McPhee is a staff writer for the New Yorker and one of our best and most interesting non-fiction writers. He wrote the book several years ago and it subsequently won a Pulitzer. It’s a big book at almost 700 pages and the topic is daunting, geology. I’ve avoided it for years. Who wants to read a 700 page book about geology? But time had run out. I couldn’t travel the West, seeing the highway cut-throughs, canyons, mesas and plateaus and not attempt to understand a little better what I was looking at. McPhee pulled me right in. Compelling prose, beautiful writing and a surprisingly fascinating topic. Consequently, the Grand Canyon seemed even more remarkable, given that I had a modest understanding of what I am looking at. And the canyon played a bit into our correspondence as well. Read on.

It clearly settled on me the insignificance of my existence standing on the rim, 70 million years of geological evolution in front of me. It is sort of like looking at the night sky from a mountain top. The human brain is not able to consider or grasp distance as astronomy employs it. We simply cannot think of a light year intelligently—the speed of light (186,000 m/sec) times 31,556,952, the number of seconds in a year. It’s the same with geology. We cannot grasp the concept of tens and hundreds of millions of years. These things, the night sky and geology, are good exercises in the practice of humility. When I say that my insignificance was starkly tangible, I do not want to suggest that I was distressed or upset. However, it was obvious: my sense of self and the ego that I’ve nurtured over the years really make no difference in the scheme of things. All the generations of human beings—and all the ancestors of our evolution—amount to a insignificant blip of time when tagged onto earth’s age, and even less when you consider the universe. We humans with our plans and schemes, our stark-raving consumption, our wars, loves, and ideals—it amounts to nothing in geologic time. So what is to be done? In the face of such a thing, how do we proceed, how do we scratch out a sense of meaning and worth?

In your last letter you said that your motivation these days is to do good work. That’s a wonderful start. But what does it mean to do good? What is good? What is bad, or as some people call it, evil? Things that were once considered good or bad, have often switched roles. Something that was good, say a hundred years ago, might now be considered bad. For instance, it was good to build Hoover dam and harness the flow of the Colorado. The dam provided hydro-electric power for LA and much of the southwest. But now, Lake Mead, behind the dam, is at it’s lowest level ever recorded. The Colorado River is disappearing, with less flow than ever. The dam might not be a slam-dunk towards the good in the long scheme of things. Remember that zen story I shared with you about the farmer whose horse ran off? The neighbors said, ”That’s too bad.” The farmer replied, “we’ll see.” The horse returned and brought more horses with him. “Good for you,” said the neighbors. “We’ll see,” he replied. His son attempted to tame one of the wild horses but broke his leg. “Too bad,” said the neighbors. “We’ll see,” said the farmer. The son is saved from conscription because of the leg. And so on. The farmer, in his wisdom, recognized that we never really know how something will turn out. The Greeks developed the notion of skepticism. Montaigne was a skeptic, famously quipping, “What do I know?”Honestly, it’s the only proper way of looking at the world once you come to appreciate the enormity of things beyond your control. Your motivation to do good is admirable, don’t get me wrong. If only more people were so motivated.

You made a comment about being judgmental and practicing a double-standard. That is the challenge of being a human being, isn’t it? I have no problem with being judgmental, at least in the fashion of being evaluative. We must make judgments all the time. What is the right thing to do? What is that person up to? Do I go or do I stay? In some sense, everything we do is based on judgement. Everything eventually boils down to choice. It’s when we start to pin the tags of good and bad on judgements that things get tricky. My old friend Nietzsche wrote a book, Beyond Good and Evil. The essence of it is, good and evil are concepts. They are social norms that come and go. There is no absolute good, nor absolute evil. No Platonic idea of good and evil, especially if you take that big social construct, religion, out of the picture. Being human is such a tricky thing. But then you know that first hand, don’t you?

You closed your last letter discussing how your actions might be perceived in one fashion or another depending on who is the observer. A fellow inmate might view your actions one way, the parole board another. You need both on your side, yet they might be opposing perspectives. That is a quandary, an essential ethical problem. You obviously recognize this and are attempting to orchestrate the best path to take. What is good, what is bad? That is the human condition, isn’t it? A mine field, indeed. Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher of the first century, had something to say about this:

“As the proposition, ‘Either it is day or it is night,’ is extremely proper for a disjunctive argument, but quite improper in a conjunctive one, so, at a feast, to choose the largest share is very suitable to the bodily appetite, but utterly inconsistent with the social spirit of an entertainment. When you eat with another, then, remember not only the value of those things which are set before you to the body, but the value of that behavior which ought to be observed towards the person who gives the entertainment.”

Epictetus suggests that concepts like day or night are substantial and not subjective. But there are other things in life that are not so cut and dry. You might desire a large portion at a dinner party—you might think that would be “good” for your appetite—but in fact such a thing would not be good, as there are other things to consider. For example, he suggests that our behavior should be evaluated as to how it effects those around us, in this case, specifically the host at the dinner part. This, I think, falls under your heading of “doing good.” That is, making your best effort and using good judgement in order to best contribute to your immediate social situation. But even that can trip you up. Several years ago my cousin in California was dying of cancer. She sought me out after many years, decades even, of no communication between us. We were not on bad terms, we’d just gone our different ways. For a year I flew back and forth, Maryland to California, to help and attend to her. I was there on the day she died and I believe I brought her comfort. All that was to the good, right? But if we zoom out and take into consideration the particulates released at 30,000 feet and how air travel contributes to global climate instability, one might say that no, it wasn’t good. Thinking beyond the immediate social situation, my flying back and forth was quite problematic in that I was contributing to the demise of the climate in a radical way. So much depends on our perspective. Again, we must try to do the right thing but can never be assured of the consequences. As a rule of thumb, however, the longer the view the better the likely outcome.

I so enjoy getting your letters and really appreciate that you take the time in your schedule to write and send them. We have covered a lot of ground over the last year, ground I would probably not have traveled without your companionship. Thank you for that.


And so my letter to a young inmate came to a close.

This is a long post and if you’ve made it this far I applaud you for your endurance. Thanks for reading, stay safe, do good work, as best you can determine, and be kind most of all.

“What does your spiritual life look like?”

In Philosophy, Religion on September 9, 2021 at 12:58 pm
Turquoise Lake, Colorado, elevation 10,400’ Photo by the author.

“Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer?”

~ Henry David Thoreau

A couple weeks ago while sitting quietly in contemplation overlooking an alpine lake a woman approached and asked, “What does your spiritual life look like?” There were a few utterances between us leading up to this most personal—and frankly, interesting—question. We had exchanged comments on the mountain landscape, the weather, and she had noticed and asked about my journal. Perhaps that prompted the question. Later in the conversation I discovered that she was Evangelical. Perhaps that is the leading question one asks when in the business of saving souls. I attempted to answer her sincerely. “My spiritual practice,” I said, “is an effort to be more dog like and less human like.” She raised her hand to her mouth and smiled. I continued. “Dogs,” I said, “are curious, brave, faithful, and most importantly, without ego.” She listened politely. “They live in the present moment, fully alive. These are all attributes I seek to embody.” She saw that I was serious. My response to her question did not deter her from her mission. “Do you know Jesus?” she asked. From there the conversation progressed down that tired and well-worn path of how to be saved, how to not go to hell, and all the rest of that business.

I am a rational human being. Though my intellectual life has drawn me to the philosophical, my outlook is scientific, hard-edged and pragmatic. Ask me a question and my mind will likely turn first toward an evolutionary response. For example, ask about friendship and I’ll tell you about Richard Dawkins’s theory of the selfish gene. When a young family member asks me about rocks and minerals I tell her about the Big Bang and the life of planet earth. So, given all this, why do I have, or rather, why do I seek to have, a spiritual life? Though they are not necessarily opposing forces, a scientific outlook and a spiritual outlook are often at odds. History bears this out, as does biography.

The woman continued, asking me what I thought happens when one dies. I asked her what happens to the light from a candle when it is snuffed out? “So that’s it,” she said, “it just all ends?” She was incredulous. I told her that it’s not a question a dog would ask and smiled. Likewise, the Buddha advised against such questions, citing that the absence of answers makes for a fruitless effort. Why bother with such endless questions when life is in front of you waiting for you to live it? Interestingly, in the absence of answers to such questions, why even pursue a spiritual life?

Because of the itch.

I do not subscribe to the notion that there is something more than what is apparent to us. Nor do I dismiss it. Rather, I side-step the question and focus on what is in front of me. This seems the core of my spiritual practice. If current advances in cognitive science help me better in this practice, then so be it. I will study accordingly. If ancient wisdom provides a path to such a goal, then that works too. I am an opportunist. Philosophically I’m a pragmatist. If it works, it’s true. If there is something more, fine, if not, so be it, that’s fine also.

At the center of all this is the itch, an incessant little tension deep inside pushing for more. No matter one’s life outlook if there is the itch, a process is engaged by which one attempts to scratch it. In my experience, not everyone is plagued by the itch, the unsettling whisper,  inarticulate yet familiar, to mix a metaphor. I see it as the itch to be fully alive, to taste experience deeply and directly; to be true to a sense of self, yet aware that even the notion of self is fraught and mysterious. To be authentic, to put it in Sartrean  terms. These are the artifacts of the itch.

The conversation flowed. The woman talked about faith. In her scheme of things faith holds center court, the place from which all things flow. “But here’s the problem,” I countered, “faith is the death of curiosity. Faith is the acceptance of something which cannot be accepted otherwise, cannot be explained nor understood rationally. Consequently curiosity meets its demise at the onset of faith.” I will not assume certitude based on an unchallenged wish, which seems the mechanics of faith. My friend didn’t like that, but she accepted it. I’ve thought about this quite a good bit over the years, the tension between curiosity and faith. Frankly, I am somewhat envious of those who feel faith deeply. That must seem a place of rest. However, I’ve also noticed that the faithful seem staid and complacent in the face of what I feel to be the one and only big question worth considering, “What does a true life, well-lived, look like?” To that question, my curiosity will never be sated. Ultimately, that is the itch that cannot be scratched.

To the woman my spiritual life appeared misguided and empty. There was no God in my scheme of things, no faith, no savior, no heaven or hell. She respected the fact that as a younger man, a curious aspiring scholar, I’d read the Gospels in the original Greek, that as a student of history I’d traveled to the Middle East to see first hand the land that gave birth to the Abrahamic traditions. She acknowledged that I was sincere and appreciated my respect towards those who saw the world differently. I had done my homework and she recognized it. Ultimately, however, she could not grasp a world-view so different from her own. I get that. It’s not everyday you encounter a human being practicing to be a dog.