Doug Bruns

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.

  1. D, good one. Thanks for writing and sharing. Look forward to seeing you this year and/or next. H

  2. Underground is almost as fascinating as outer space. Maybe even more because we hear less about it. And the photos are usually less dramatic. The Grand Canyon being an exception. “Underland” by Robert MacFarlane tells the story of so many underground phenomena: underground rivers, canyons, nuclear waste storage spaces, etc. Thanks for this geological perspective on philosophy.

I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: