Doug Bruns

“A great secret of success is to go through life as a man who never gets used up.” ~Albert Schweitzer

In Family, Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Thinkers on April 24, 2010 at 9:56 pm

There is an extended scene towards the end of  25th Hour, the 2002 Spike Lee movie that captures my imagination. The Ed Norton character is reporting to prison in upstate New York, being driven there by his father, played by Brian Cox. In the scene, his father says, “Just say the word, say the word and we will take the GW Bridge and head west and start a new life.” The father describes this life the Ed Norton character is to carve out for himself, a life in which he will start completely fresh, grow old and never ever again come home. This notion has dogged me for some time. That is to say, long before watching this movie, the idea of starting over, taking a different approach, a reincarnation of sorts, has needled me. I’ve posted some notes on this previously and promise not to be redundant (I hope).

Schweitzer, photographed by the great Eugene Smith.

I don’t know exactly when, but the life of Albert Schweitzer came to my attention at a very early age. The Schweitzer pithy details are as follows: He had three distinct lives. One, Schweitzer was a world-class scholar of Biblical texts. His book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, a text still in print, set the standard for scholarship on the topic. His second life was that of a musician. In this incarnation, Schweitzer became an internationally recognized interpreter of Bach’s organ music. He traveled and performed throughout Europe, recording performances and writing books of Bach scholarship. Lastly, the third life, is the Eugene Smith image of the Doctor Schweitzer we recognize, (he had two Ph.Ds and an M.D.) the pith-helmeted doctor of the Congo, hellbent on building hospitals and curing malaria. I find Schweitzer and his life(s) hugely compelling.

How is it that some get so many chances? And how does one get more? Is it as simple as driving across the GW Bridge and heading west? Two years ago my son, Tim, grew weary of the congested helter-skelter life in the Mid-Atlantic. He loaded his truck with his belongings, his dog and headed west in the great American tradition. He didn’t know it was the great American tradition, but of course it is. Out out he drove and filling his gas tank in Colorado he looked up at the mountains, turned and looked down Main street to the end, turned again and looked up Main street to the other end and thought, This is it. He stayed and started over.

It is said the only way of attaining immortality in this life is to be present, to exist precisely in a moment, and in doing so, experience the cessation of time. I find this idea somehow akin to the notion of driving west with your father at the wheel, escaping prison and starting over. Or, loading up your truck and going out, away, with your dog and becoming someone else. But not entirely. Like the sunrise, immortality appears ripe in the promise of the new. But too the sun rises to overhead, then sets.

Regardless, the nature of things, I think, is such that we can do a lot with what we are dealt. We likely won’t end up in the Congo. We may not find ourselves in Colorado. But, closer to home, we start over all the time. On the cellular level we do it. The cells of the body replace themselves. It is self-defense. Depending on the cell type, pancreas, liver, brain, cells come, they go, faster, slower. They regenerate. Old ones expire, new ones are created. In summary, about every seven years (a reverse dog year) we are new–physically, that is.The ancient texts intoned that everything is and isn’t simultaneously. Not to reach too far afield, the point being, physically we are always freshening ourselves up, even as we grow old. Can we not manifest that on a larger scale?–(re)fresh, cure malaria?, even as the sun passes overhead and settles on the horizon. It is, of course, not so easy as all that. That’s talk and talk is, as the adage goes, not very expensive. When it comes down to it, it’s not really so much about the change-up. It is more about the desire, the stretching, I think.

I see the heavy hand of the existentialists in all this, the idea that the person is nothing but what he or she makes of existence–the notion that existence comes first (not I think, there I am, but I am therefore I think). Regardless of how one comes down philosophically, there is that other great American tradition, the one of rolling your sleeves up and making something of yourself. Perhaps it is no more complicated than the constant effort of not letting the rock roll back over you.


I re-read all this and think of Montaigne. But “what do I know?” he said.

I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading.

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