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.

  1. “Perhaps there, at the intersection of the doing and the knowing, the art of living is to be found.”
    Hmmm, how do each of us create the appropriate balance of doing and knowing — and how do we achieve a satisfying ratio of doing when our ability to do faces physical restrictions such as chronic illness (like fibromyalgia) or disability?
    How do I — and so many others with physical challenges — attain the art of living while wrestling with a restricted ability to do? Good questions to ferment more in my noggin…

    • Amy ~ Thanks for your note. So nice to hear from you. And thanks for setting my noggin afire! I won’t pretend to have any answers to your wonderful questions but a couple of things come to mind. As it relates to our individual physicality: The first thing that comes to mind are the teachings of the Stoics, not the suck-it-up and bear it stoicism we moderns might think of. Rather the ancient Stoic teaching that pretty much everything is out of our control—but for what goes on between our ears (and even that can be dicey). They said, for example, that we can train the body and eat right and get plenty of sleep but we can still get a deadly disease. The physical is largely out of our control. But our attitude regarding our physical world is something we can control. Epictetus was a 1st century Stoic teacher who had been a slave. Much of his teaching is about freedom. He claimed freedom even as a slave because he had a trained mind and knew his physical being was outside of his control. I think Nietzsche’s challenge is neutral on physicality. Do you want to repeat this—whatever you’re doing—or not, regardless of your physical situation. Personally, I think the bigger question you raise is “how do each of us create the appropriate balance of doing and knowing”. Aristotle talked about the Golden Median. The Buddha talked about the middle way. For me, a guy given to obsessions, the balance is somewhere in that middle region, not too much or too far this way, not too much that way. My personal experience is that all that sounds well and good but isn’t so easy to accomplish. I’m studying Kierkegaard these days and am wondering how he answered that question. What is the “doing” that he was referring to? At the root of all this, for me, is the notion of freedom. Someone asked me not too long ago if I thought we had free will. I said that I couldn’t say, but that it was important that I live as if I do. I don’t think the art of living, as you so wonderfully put it, is contingent. With absolute freedom there is a responsibility to be the life artist regardless of the tools at our disposal, or lack thereof. Damn, Amy, you wound me up! Stay in touch. Best, D

  2. Thanks for this, Doug. The month of December, and the advent of all the holiday brouhaha is the perfect time to reflect on whether I would want to spend this December as a repeat of Decembers past. The answer is a resounding NO to most of them, with too many plastic toys and argyle sweaters, too much tinsel and too many superficial gatherings. Did I mention too much sugary food? That too. Actually, the December I might opt to repeat was December 2020. Covid lockdown. Our holiday celebration was so simple. Sitting around a fire pit with my family members all bundled up like Eskimos, we enjoyed a holiday toddy together. One at a time, each of us told about one good thing that happened because of covid lockdown. It was heartwarming. So much good came out of hardship. Then we exchanged paper bags of simple gifts and the food we had agreed to share before we headed back to our respective pods.

    Your post also reminded me of the Annie Dillard quote reminding us that how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. I looked it up and the except contained more than I had remembered. Here it is now. Thanks for your post and an opportunity to reflect upon each day.

    “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.”

    Happy sailing!

    • I love your Covid Christmas story, Susan, so Hygge-ish! Sometimes I just wonder why we don’t do more of the things we just love more often? One of the (few) advantages of age is the freedom some of us have to do just that. But then the bug-a-boo of aging is the whittling away of our freedoms isn’t it. Loss of this and that until all is lost eventually. But I find that very fact to be energizing. As we’ve (sort of) talked in the past, I don’t think life has any intrinsic meaning. Meaning is not woven into the fabric of the universe. We only have it if we make it. For me, the ticking clock has been a life-long reminder to build in / create the meaning. And your quote from Annie D was new to me (but for the first sentence) and so resonates with this theme. Goals and schedules, reason and order, that’s the stuff of meaning in my view of things. What time of day did Sisyphus clock in to start rolling the boulder? That is, it seems, a fashion of the “doing” that Kierkegaard is referring to—but that’s just conjecture on my part. I look forward to more of this sort of talk face to face soon enough. Until then, stay close to the wind.

  3. D, as always, thanks for your efforts and wisdom. I think, therefore I am, I think.

    On reflection, I see myself as a person of experience, more that thought. In Jamaica I refleced on what the experience felt like, more that what I thought of the experience. And, I like the notion of balance between the two. Perhaps i need to think more, in addition to just doing.

    Anyway, thanks again. Bis spater. H

    • You remind me of Jim Whittaker the first American to climb Everest. He was asked the proverbial question, Why do you climb. He said, “I don’t think much about it, I just do it.” You’re a man of action, just like Whittaker! (Though your mountains a bit lower.) Always a please to connect with you. D

  4. I’m in for the first part of quote and I am out for the part after the ellipses. I like a little absurdism with my existentialism, so destiny is not part of the equation but I do spend too much time trying to know everything and not enough on what I must do.

    • Couldn’t agree more Chauncy. Part of me wants to think about the existentialist view of freedom and the associated responsibility as being the existentialist’s view of destiny, and maybe it is, sort of. That seems too much trying to fix the round peg in the square hole however. Thanks for reading and your note. Much appreciated.

I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading.

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