Doug Bruns

“What I really wanted was every kind of life…”

In Life, Literature, Photography, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers, Wisdom, Writing on April 7, 2010 at 2:24 pm

Susan Sontag first thought she was going to be something other than what she became. When she was about six she read a biography of Madame Curie, written by her daughter Eve Curie. “…at first I thought I was going to be a chemist. Then for a long time, most of my childhood, I wanted to be a physician. But literature swamped me. What I really wanted was every kind of life, and the writer’s life seemed the most inclusive.”

I find this interesting, particularly in light of a book I’m reading, Wisdom, Philosophy to Neuroscience, by Stephen Hall. I’ll save my thoughts about the book for later, but want to pass along one idea specifically. In a chapter titled, Dealing with uncertainty, Hall writes of a scientific paper, which in essence, he says, is “about balance.” He continues: “It describes how people neurologically weigh the relative merit of sticking with a behavioral strategy or changing” in a non-stationary environment. It all boils down simply to this: “At a party, in a marriage, at a job, in a stock fund, the question is always the same: Should I stay or should I go?”

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit. It is a simple idea: A theory of decision-making which asks, Do I stay or do I go? (It’s tied deeply to the evolutionary notion of fight or flee, obviously.) Sontag understood early to move on, answering the question do I go? (In her case go from scientist to writer.) For most of us, however, Should I stay or should I go, is never so obvious or so amplified. That makes it all the trickier.

I keep getting drawn back to this question of how to live a life. I can’t think of an example of a decision which cannot be answered by asking Should I stay or should I go? I’m sure it’s out there, but I can’t put my finger on one right this minute. The point is, this challenge–stay or go?–is a road map. And living a life, I think, should have one–a road map, that is. Funny thing, though, there is no one pointing out the destination. What good is a map if you don’t know where you’re headed? (“Parts unknown,” to nod in Twain’s direction, is even a destination, no?)

I’ve had some help with this business recently, the road map destination thing. My friend Thatcher Cook, whom I’ve mentioned previously, is a strong advocate of the credo, in his case the credo of a photographer. He put me onto this notion and it set me off in a number of directions I did not anticipate.  “Include footnotes,” he admonished. In other words, be serious, dig deep, follow the thread wherever it takes you. (Press on and demand of yourself some answers, for god’s sake. This is important stuff.) Though Thatcher’s credo, a working document, is oriented to his discipline of photography, the concept is broadening. (Its a credo, not a manifesto, so it’s private, sort of…)

If you have a destination, you can answer the question, Should I go or should I stay?  If you don’t you can’t. Simple. (Montaigne: “The soul that has no fixed goal loses itself; for, as they say, to be everywhere is to be nowhere.”) If you can’t answer you cannot make a decision. Simple again. Sontag was “swamped by literature.” Most of us will never be swamped by anything. We may get drenched, or even rained on, but swamped, whereby the destination is clear, is a very rare thing. It appeals to me to seek the rare thing, yearn for the difficult. The common is just that, common.

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