Doug Bruns

Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

Happiness, Joy

In Family, Happiness, Life, The Examined Life on November 10, 2019 at 9:50 am

Photo by Joe Yates on Unsplash

A year or so ago while celebrating a milestone wedding anniversary one of our adult children asked if we could articulate the keys to a successful marriage. Carole went first. She spoke with intelligence and experience about the vital role communication must play when two human beings are committed to living together in support of one another. It was workable advice. Carole is nothing if not practical. When my turn came I quipped, “Lower your expectations.” I recall elaborating a little, saying something about resisting the urge for more, that success is more easily realized when we lower the bar. I’ve thought a great deal about my response and have been meaning to give my kids a better developed answer. So here goes.

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The notion of lowering the bar goes back to something Melville said. I can only paraphrase it, having lost the quotation. If we expect less—less from life, less from others, less from ourselves–the chances of being happy will rise. Let’s label this attitude as pessimistic. The pessimist doesn’t expect much and therefore doesn’t require much to be pleased. There is, consequently, more opportunity for joy. Recent studies bare this out, citing that if not taken too far, pessimism will lead to a longer and happier life. Similarly, the life of the minimalist, the individual who eschews the cultural mantra of more more more, is likewise a happier individual. Like the pessimist, the minimalist too is lowering the bar. They don’t need much to be satisfied. It is said that Socrates walked through the market and marveled at all the stuff he did not want. He took joy in his lack of need. The other way of considering this is to think about saying yes to what matters. That in turn forces the question, What really matters, What are the essentials? These are good questions to ponder–or in the case of a relationship, to discuss.
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But isn’t marriage a contract between individuals promising to support the best efforts and designs of the other? Doesn’t lowering the bar take the punch out of this vow, leading to an attitude of accepting the simply adequate? My response: What is wrong with adequacy? By definition it meets the implied need, does it not? Why do we think we should get more than that? Of course we would like more than that. We will call that a preference. We would prefer more than the simply adequate. But we have little to no control over the successful outcome of our preferences. Yes, we will make our best effort, ideally with the understanding that our preference might not come to fruition. This is insurance against disappointment. If our preference is realized, we will be pleased, happiness being a side-effect. But if things don’t work out we are prepared and consequently we’re less disappointed. Indeed, we can experience a real degree of joy and satisfaction at our ambivalence. C.S. Lewis called joy “An unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.”
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That I have successfully lived over forty years with someone is testimony to a realistic attitude. Overt optimism is a dangerous and twisty road to travel. There are lots of ups and downs which can take a toll on a relationship. There is little point in magnifying them with unrealistic expectations and desires. More often than not things are not going to go the way you’d prefer. You can be upset about that, or you can accept it as a fact of life. The wonderful thing is that the more realistic your view, the more joy you experience. At some level the overt optimist knows the fallacy of the position. He or she knows that hope dashed is a painful and disappointing thing, yet they hope against hope. Realism, on the other hand, is a comfort. There is an internal peace that is in harmony with accepting the world as it is.
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As I’ve said before, happiness does not respond to being pursued. That idea is a cruel trick. It leads to mindless consumption, to uninformed expectation, to unrealistic desire. “Happiness cannot be pursued, it can only ensue,” said Viktor Frankl. Buddhists and the ancient Greeks both warned against desire (the desire for, and pursuit of happiness, for instance) and aversion (wishing to avoid unhappiness). They held to the middle way, the Golden Mean, as Aristotle described it. This position I call realistic pessimism. The night before our marriage Carole and I, jittery with pre-wedding nerves, asked out loud, “What if it doesn’t work out?” Our honest answer: “We can always get divorced.” We still joke all these years later about it. We can always get divorced if things don’t work out. That is realistic pessimism at work, complimented by a dash of humor. Ours is a joy-filled and largely happy marriage. We don’t take it for granted. We recognize that our hard work and efforts have paid us well in return. But we are also realistic people. We support and encourage one another, yet we don’t press too hard and are supportive when things don’t go the way we’d prefer. We don’t expect too much and are fine with things in a state of adequacy. Anything beyond that we welcome, but we don’t hold our breath. We’ve had more than our share of fulfilled preferences and are grateful for that. Going forward we are realistic. We are growing old. Things will likely get harder, life will grow more challenging in all sorts of ways hard to imagine. But realism is a comfort. There is hard-earned joy in that.

My cousin Neal.

In Death, Family, Memoir, Philosophy, The Examined Life on December 23, 2018 at 8:00 am

I am an only child. Growing up, my cousins, Neal and Diane, were the closest I had to siblings. Like a lot of families who are spread out, our lives intersected only occasionally after we grew up and had families of our own. Then a few years ago, as Carole and I were traversing the country, we had the opportunity to see more of them and their spouses. For instance, this past October Carole and I stopped and visited while heading east from Colorado. It was a wonderful visit, with much laughter and love. A couple of weeks after we left, Neal was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died last week. I spoke with him shortly after the diagnosis. He was in good spirits and told me that he was accepting the hand he’d been dealt. I wrote him a note shortly after. In his memory, I share it with you below.

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Dear Neal ~ I want to tell you a story. I might have told you this before, so please excuse me if I’m repeating myself.

The story goes back many many years to my 8th birthday. As you know I was born in early October and I remember the day being crisp with a clear-blue sky. You probably remember my best friends, Rick and Jeff Erickson. It was my birthday and I was walking across my backyard to their house when out of nowhere the following question presented itself: If I die tomorrow, would my life have been well spent? Over the years I’ve shared this incident with many people. They often look at me askance and say something like, My what an odd little boy you must have been! Of course you may laugh and nod your head in agreement. Regardless, that moment changed the course of my life. Consequently, I have spent much of my life thinking about what a well-lived life should look like. I want you to know the part you’ve played in helping me answer that question.

When I reflect upon the proper well-lived life I think of a life of principal, a life of patience, and kindness, and steadfastness. It is a modest life, devoted to enduring values. A life built on virtue. When I reflect upon the proper well-lived life, I think of you. You stand tall, in my opinion, as a model of the proper life. You are devoted to family, and have a wide circle of friends. You seem to have herculean patience and tolerance. I’ve never known you to utter a cross or mean-spirited word. You laugh easily. You pursue excellence and have demonstrated the courage of going your own way, following your own vision and scheme of things. Most of us aspire to be a better person. It is a project for us, a work in process. You on the other hand simply are a better person. It seems to come naturally for you. Like all masters, you make something difficult appear easy. You have a grace in that way and I greatly admire it.

One of my hero philosophers said that the length or brevity of a life is of little importance in the grand scheme of things. What is important, however, is how the life is lived. Is it a life devoted to the good, to, “a life of virtues you can show: honesty, gravity, endurance, austerity, resignation, abstinence, patience, sincerity, moderation, seriousness, high-mindedness?” You have walked the walk, as they say. That is, you’ve shown me, and those around you, what these attributes look like in real-life practice, and I am forever indebted to you for that.

Thank you and with love,

Your cousin.

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A closing comment. Neal responded to my note as I expected, with quiet modesty, writing, “I’ve always tried to do what mom and dad instilled in us and I guess over time it just became my nature.” I encourage you to write to someone you love and tell them what they mean to you.

 

Recent Contemplations

In Family, Wisdom on December 8, 2018 at 8:00 am

Questions I’ve been contemplating recently * : 

  • What’s ultimately the most important thing in life to you?
  • What do you want your life to “stand for” or “be about”?
  • What would you most like your life to be remembered for after you’ve died?
  • What sort of thing do you most want to spend your life doing?
  • What sort of person do you most want to be in your various relationships and roles in life, e.g., as a parent, a friend, at work, and in life generally?

And this one, which really got me thinking:

  • If you had one opportunity to give advice to your child about life, what would you tell them is most important?

 I was discussing this last question with my daughter. She is a nurse, mother of two, wife–in other words a person who is very busy. She got up early this particular morning, went to the gym, then home to write in her journal before the kids got up. She had a good start on the day and her mood reflected it. Then it occurred to me, the advice I would share with my children: Get up early. To get up early is to exercise self-discipline. With self-discipline a life, like a day, begins to take shape and everything follows accordingly from there.

*Thanks to Donald Robertson and the Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training program for these questions and many other thought-provoking notions.

 

“I’m having a good day.”

In Family, Memoir, Wisdom on September 6, 2017 at 12:40 pm

Two days ago my two-year old granddaughter said something that I’ve been thinking a lot about. We were walking to the park. Her little hand was wrapped around my extended finger. She was looking straight ahead and it was a sunny afternoon. “I’m having a good day,” she said, apropos of nothing. Imagine that. I’m having a good day, said the little two-year old.

Today it has been raining and I’m out in the woods, up on the Appalachian plateau, the only participant in a two-week self-designed retreat. I’m in my Airstream so it’s not too much of a hardship. Still, it has been pouring from dawn to dusk. But never is a day bad. It might be a day of bad weather, but the day, well, the day itself is always just that, the day. I try not to categorize by labeling it good or bad. It’s part of a practice, to experience a thing without either latching on to it or being put off by it. Just recognize it for what it is directly, without stamping a value on it.

My granddaughter did not say it was a good day. She said she was having a good day. There is a difference. Picasso said it took him a lifetime to draw like a child. I wish to have a day like a child, to have a day that is simply good and call it out as such, like it is the most natural thing in the world. That is a fashion of drawing like a child, to breathe the air and feel the sun and hold someone’s hand and know it is good.

So here I am out in the woods. It is night and I’m listening to a little music, sipping some bourbon, Lucy asleep on my bed while the rain dances on the roof of my little aluminum abode. I took some long walks today, between storms. This afternoon the wind picked up and I noticed a few amber and orange leaves skittering across the field. Fall is on the way, my favorite season. I spent a good amount of the day in meditation and a good amount of the day with my guitar. I’ve been working on Carcassi’s Allegro No. 1 and am getting better at the transition from the third to eighth position. I made myself two simple meals and didn’t watch any TV. I only have 1X data coverage, so I didn’t stream any videos, hell, I couldn’t even load a web page, which is perfect, given my designs for this retreat.

I like going to sleep to the sound rain falling. I have had a good day.

 

Don Bruns

In Death, Family, Life, Memoir on May 6, 2014 at 12:42 pm

Dad

Dad

 

My father, about whom I have written extensively here, died last week. He was 92. He died in his bed peacefully. No machines, no tubes, no wires. I was with him and was able to tell him one last time that I was proud of him and that I loved him. He went out like he lived, without drama, understated, quietly.

I wrote this essay about him 23 years ago. The Baltimore Sun picked it up and published it on Father’s Day. Dad and Mom came to our house for lunch that Sunday and I read the essay to him. He had not seen it and sat quietly as I read. It was my Father’s Day gift to him. I reprint it below as tribute to my father.

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My father cannot throw a baseball overhand. He has a bad shoulder. I recollect as a youngster him trying a couple of times, but he threw awkwardly, like a young child. He stood there, looking apologetic and rubbing his shoulder. “It’s been a problem all my life, this shoulder of mine. But I can throw pretty darn fast underhand,” he said. So we played catch a while, he throwing underhand, I on the look out for friends who might see us and tease me.

That was a long time ago. He still throws underhand. I see him with his grandchildren. I am suspicious of the problem of the bad shoulder. He has never otherwise complained of shoulder problems. I think he never learned to throw a ball properly and is too embarrassed to admit it. One is taught to throw a ball. My children are learning now: Plant one foot, elbow high, follow through. It does not come naturally to most mortals.

My father was born in 1922. His was the rugged life of a youngster in Indiana during the Depression. The only picture I ever saw of him as a child was a faded snapshot of him and his two brothers kneeling in a sandbox, all looking typically boyish. He wore a beret, tilted. It must have seemed exotic, a beret, not a cap. They seem to be squinting into the sun and their clothes are ragged.

From  what I know of his youth it did not have much room for ball playing with his dad. Like many of that era his father scraped for odd jobs here and there. He did not much comfort his family, my grandfather, but rather brought home the grief and struggle that was his experience. Once, my father told me, his dad hit him in the face with the back of his hand. It was at the dinner table. I think he told me to convey his own struggle, not only in growing up, but with fathering. Like ball playing, he was never shown properly how it is done.

I sense the struggle in my father not to be like his father. Each generation rejects the former generation in its individual way. He brought to fatherhood his best, a true heart and a deep character.

A man given to working with his hands, Dad was forever building me boxes and cars and toys in his workshop: building new things when properly he had other work to do. One of the first and best memories I have is sitting on the gray concrete slab of his workshop mixing water and sawdust in a cup with a long nail, while he worked away on something or other.

I inherited his engineering ingenuity. That is, I am pretty good at figuring a solution to a problem, but the skills are lacking. I tended to demean them in my youth. It was part of my statement of generational independence. The bookcase he recently built for me, now proudly displayed in my living room, is a monument not only to his ability but to my incredulity. How does one build something like this? When he gave it to me he ran his palm along the edge. I saw his knowledge and intelligence reflected in the grace of his hand over the wood, like a skater across ice. He built three houses in his time, two from the ground up, one essentially alone. How does one build a house? The answer is imponderable to me. He would have taught me his skill if I had let him.

My mother, whenever my father was doing something for me, would fondly advise: “Remember this when you have children.” She was, of course, referring to the devotion with which my father granted his time and skill. I think often of my mother’s statement. I have children of my own, and I am learning to appreciate what was my father’s gift to me: the best he could muster, even if it meant having to pitch underhand, and his time whenever I asked for it. One must be brave to be devoted so heartily to the next generation, and one must be loving and trusting of the future.

                                                                                                Originally Published in the Baltimore Sun, Father’s Dad, June 15, 1991

A Morning Visit

In Death, Family on May 3, 2013 at 6:00 am

I visit my father every morning. Two weeks ago I found him sitting in his desk chair, back to me, upright, but listing. I called, Good morning. I got no response. I approached and looked at his face. His eyes were open, though his lids heavy. He did not respond to my voice. I thought, fighting panic: This is how it should be. Dressed, at his desk, no effort, no struggle. Gone. But he was not gone. I detected his chest moving. I rested my hands on his shoulders. I called to him, softly. Still no response. I stroked his back, the bones now protruding, symbols of only hard things remaining. I activated the sensor he wears around his neck and as I waited I talked to him, telling him it was going to be okay, that I was with him. No response. Help arrived and as the four of us lifted him into his bed his eyes focused and he said, “To what do I owe this attention?” We laughed.

I spent the day with him, at his bedside, and a measure of me hoped that he would be spared further suffering. But as the day wore on, he recovered. I fed him. I read to him. I held his hand.  Late in the day, I left him sleeping. I told the receptionist that I was leaving. She said they would check on him. When I returned a few hours later, he was in his chair, dressed, and trying to figure out his TV remote. We watched a bit of Deadliest Catch together.

The body fails us when we most desire otherwise. And, conversely, it stubbornly marches on when we have perhaps arrived at exhaustion and long for rest. The final act of existence is the release of breath–just as the first act was the gasp for it. There is nothing within our control, but for the thoughts in our head and even those, most precious and of our own design, run wild through the caverns of consciousness.  We carry on together.