Doug Bruns

Greetings (of the Season)

In Death, Faith, Nature, The infinity of ideas, Wisdom on December 22, 2019 at 9:00 am
Stonehendge

Stonehenge, winter solstice

“We must be less than death, to be lessened by it, for nothing is irrevocable but ourselves.” ~ Emily Dickinson, in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson

      * * *

I want to ask you a question and you have to promise that you will not do any mental calculations before answering. Here goes, How many weeks do you think there are in an average lifespan? I recently stumbled across this little fact and was surprised at the answer. Before I tell you, I confess that I grossly over estimated. Here’s something to consider first: The approximate duration of all human civilization since the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia is about 270,000 weeks. And the answer to my question: The modern lifespan average is about four thousand weeks. Four thousand weeks! (I owe these factoids to Oliver Burkeman and his article, Life’s Too Short, in NewPhilosopher magazine, Fall 2019.)

100 years

24,698 days, 100 years.

I recall years ago as a young child looking at a hundred-year calendar contained on just two pages. Each year was represented by a box about three inches square, and within each box was a smaller box for each month, and like nested Russian dolls, within each smaller box, each numbered day. I was probably around ten or eleven years old and looking at those two pages I said out loud, “Somewhere in front of me is the day I will die.”

Death is not something we talk about much. I have my thoughts about it and you have yours. Regardless of our notions on the matter it is coming for us. Thinking about it, philosophizing about it, building temples and formulating doctrines around it makes no difference. It cannot be avoided.

This is the holiday season and you may think me growing dark with talk of death. The season, no matter what you make of it, is supposed to be about birth and new beginnings. Consider the ancient Roman festival in honor of the god Saturn, Saturnalia. This holiday spanned December 17 through the 23rd and was associated with the “freeing of souls into immortality.” Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday which falls this time of year, is about celebrating liberation and finding light in the darkest of times. solsticeI read recently of a new archeological discovery in Great Britain. It was a neolithic structure with but just one window. This single window, strategically placed, afforded light to the room only one day a year, the winter solstice. (As you may know, yesterday was the winter solstice.) Regardless of the event, be it a Walmart blow-out Christmas sale, or a Druid celebration of the coming of the light, this is a time of year that has for as long as we know, afforded humankind an opportunity for reflection—and if you’re inclined, worship.

So reflect on the weeks of your life and how you’ve been chipping away at the average. How many of the four thousand do you think you may have left? How do you think you ought to experience them? The same as all the others? Or do you wish to change it up?

I am moved to these reflections by something I read recently in the book Figuring by the indomitable Maria Popova. “Questions of meaning are a function of human life,” she writes,

“…but they are not native to the universe itself—meaning is not what we find, but what we create with the lives we live and the seeds we plant and the organizing principles according to which we sculpt our personhood.”

The ancients built meaning and ritual into the universal occurrences of nature. Sadly, we have moved away from nature, think ourselves removed from and something other than born of nature. In the gap we’ve created, the ancient rituals have become rote and corrupted by commerce, politics, and indifference. I obviously don’t know how many of my hoped for 4000 weeks remain to me, but I take seriously my responsibility to use them wisely. I take seriously my responsibility to make something meaningful of them.

The laws of nature, including death, cannot be avoided, despite our inclinations to ignore and dismiss them. We are subject to the same laws as that which prompts the trees to shed the leaves, the river to freeze, the beloved to die—and still the sun will rise. As I said previously, I’m not someone who traditionally has practiced ritual or acknowledged the import of spirituality, however that may be defined. Frankly, I am comfortable leaving all that aside. Instead, I wish to focus on what is in front of me, life. I wish to focus on infusing what remains to me with meaning and meaningfulness. That is, perhaps, the nature of my faith, my ritual, my spiritual practice. I wish to turn my thought from death to this moment while I am still breathing. The light is coming, the room will be illuminated as the blue planet turns in compliance to the laws of nature. I am no different, subject as I am to that from which I was born. I must obey…

I hope you have a meaningful holiday season.

  1. Thanks for your solstice musings, Doug.

    The topic of death seems to bring into focus the question of what is meaning and/or meaningfulness, and how do we define it in our life? Happiness? Satisfaction? Contentment? The simplicity of the present moment? Philanthropy? Kindness? Enhanced insight? Doesn’t a plan for how to spend these remaining weeks depend on one’s own meaning of meaning?

    You and I both read about the Irish farmer Michael Doolin who found happiness by lying down in the Irish meadow and watching the world turning a bit, with him still in it. He found meaning just by being, and being aware of being with everything around him. What are we yearning for when we are touched by such profound simplicity? Probably more than lying down in a field.

    On the flip side of the printed version of the Michael Doolin story was an essay by Ross Douthat. I read his column mainly to educate myself about how a very smart person can maintain support for a religion and political group that seems morally out of step to me. Finally, I got the answer – at least as it pertains to religion. Most surprisingly, it reminded me of you. He says:

    “I grew up around mystical and supernatural-seeming happenings, which primed me to permanently doubt the reasonableness of materialism in all forms, both confident and sorrowful.”

    When a ten-year-old is suddenly struck with the question of, “how do I live a meaningful life?” or “what will be my date of death?” And, when that same boy continues to pursue those questions throughout his life, whether through literature or philosophy or Zen Buddhism or treks through the Himalayas, it would seem to me that this child grew up having had mystical or supernatural-seeming happenings in his life.

    Though you state you are not someone to traditionally practice ritual or spirituality, I am not so sure you are leaving all that aside. Maybe it is part of the meaningfulness upon which you focus, though in your own nontraditional form. Douthart ends his article with a quote from W.H. Auden:

    Nothing can save us that is possible:

    We who must die demand a miracle.

    If one has experienced a mystical or supernatural-seeming happening in life, it would follow that one might make that Dickensian demand, “Please sir I want some more.”

    Happy Holidays!

    • I’ve hesitated responding to you, Susan. There is so much here that warrants discussion. But I can hold my tongue no longer…
      You put some interesting questions at the top of your comment, questions about meaning, simplicity, mysticism, and so on. Rich stuff, indeed. I’ve been wondering lately about the relativity of happiness. What makes Michael Doolin happy probably won’t do much for Ross Douthat and so on. Yet, there seems to be some universality to the notion of happiness. Let’s say you’re a young man who has inherited a fortune. You do all sorts of stuff with the money, with your life, you even become president of these united states. Does that path suggest happiness? From observing one specific individual who took such a path, it doesn’t seem to bring happiness. On the other hand, lying down in a field would probably not be a happiness-producing experience for such a guy. So where does a guy like that find happiness if not in the subjectivity of happiness? Of course there is also what seems to be the whole problem of happiness. We are supposed to be happy, we’ve even got a big important document that says we have a right to pursue it (unless you’re a woman or a person of color or not a landowner, if the original is to be considered in the historical context.) There is also the question (in my mind) of the evolutionary aspects of happiness. We are a product of nature subjected to time (i.e. evolution). Somewhere on that path we got out of the rain and sat around a fire in relative safety. I bet we were happy at that moment. But of course that would be fleeting, as we soon heard our stomach rumbling and were forced to find something to satisfy us. No long term happiness to be found there. As a product of evolution are we kidding ourselves when we think we should find lasting sustaining happiness? I go back to my default position. I wish to be satisfied at experiencing adequacy. That seems a long-term approach that one might be able to sustain. Should I rise above the bandwidth of adequacy, well then, let’s call that happiness. But don’t get attached to it, cause you’re stomach is going to start complaining at some point and you’re going to have to leave the cave in search of food.

      Too, I find meaning(fulness) relative. We each build our web of what is meaningful, to us, to our neighborhood, to the world. When our relative notions of meaning(fulness) are at cross purpose we might strike out, might exercise aggression, might become depressed, might turn for something to which we can escape our disappointment.

      And yet…history is full of examples of individuals who figured out how to be happy in a constant way and how to live richly with a high degree of meaning(fulness). As I study these lives, and as you seem to note, simplicity seems a common theme. As does nature. Thoreau called these the vital facts of life–“which are the phenomena or actuality the gods meant to show us.” And there we find the focus shifted to something not so tangible, to the transcendental, perhaps the “mystical and supernatural-seeming happenings.” And here you’ve opened a can of beautiful worms for me. You place me and my view of things in a camp that takes in/accepts/experience(d) the mystical and supernatural-seeming happenings. I’ve been thinking about this theory you put to me for several days. It has elevated my spirit and afforded me a grand(er) view of things. You mention of Doolin, “He found meaning just by being, and being aware of being with everything around him.” Being aware of being. Therein lies both the simplicity (though not a simple thing to pull off) and the mystical (more to the point). The grand and marvelous (miraculous?) fact of being. That awareness, along with the weight and responsibility of that awareness/wisdom–therein lies something close to all this, I think. Therein lies meaning(fulness) and happiness and a being in recognition and awareness to the degree that recognition and awareness are transcended–that seems the proper recipe.

      Thank you for such thought-provoking and interesting ideas.
      From one pilgrim to another,
      D

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