Doug Bruns

Archive for the ‘Life’ 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.

Reaching for the Stars.

In Life, Nature, Philosophy, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas on October 13, 2019 at 8:00 am

Photo by Denis Degioanni on Unsplash

The last few nights in Colorado I got into the habit of stepping outside and looking up at the night sky. Head tilted back I released my attention and simply stared. The Milky Way was a dash overhead, like a pale splash of paint against black felt. I did not try to understand the sky, did not try to identify anything about it. I simply released myself to the vastness and attempted to absorbed it.

The ancient Greeks had a practice of studying the night sky in a similar fashion. For them it was an exercise in humility. When one places oneself in the cosmos the notion of individual place and time slinks away. It is only our ego that positions us in comparison to such unknowable vastness. The ego has it’s own Milky Way and it’s own universe and it is hellbent on convincing us of our individual importance in the grand balance of things. But like much the ego attempts, it is in error, and will only lead us down a blind alley. “But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars,” said Emerson. Look at the night sky, breath it in, and tell me your ego does not run off embarrassed and humiliated.There is no defense against such a vast and empty truth.

You cannot expose yourself to a backdrop of significant beauty and grandeur without a converse arising of self-doubt and humility. Much of life’s larger experiences require that we drop the self-narrative and simply expose ourselves to what is. This is not easy, as we think we know what is. There is a school of thought which suggests the self is nothing more than a stitched together string of experiences, that no such thing as a self even exists. Modern psychology is bearing this out. All that is fine, but still we struggle. We struggle with humility. We struggle with ego. We struggle with a false personal perspective. It is likely hard-wiring. It is how we, as a species, survived. But that does not make it necessarily the reality of things. It is not necessarily what is.

Humans are a mass of contradictions. I know I am. As an atheist I stand under the night canopy and long for transcendence. I pray at the alter of science, yet yearn for the transformative mystic experience. I relinquish myself to a ruling rational perspective, yet sit in meditation attempting to release all cognitive ambition. I have, I think, finally arrived at a place where these opposing factions are no longer warring. We spend too much of life attempting to resolve the inner contradictions. The only resolution is to accept them and face the truth that we will never be rid of them. They are us, we them. Make room for contradiction. Accepting the fluidity of the human condition, moment to moment, requires a release that does not come altogether naturally. For some of us, that release is an ongoing effort, the work of a lifetime. That seems, at the core of things, the essence of being human. Yet we war against it as if attacked by an opposing army. But there is no army laying siege. There is only the vacuous loneliness of the frigid night sky. We can go to war, or we can release. Or better, perhaps, embrace.

Sitting by a stream Margaret Fuller (1810-1850), no shrinking violet, wrote “all was dark and cold, and still. Suddenly the sun shone out with that transparent sweetness, like the last smile of a dying lover.” At that moment “there passed into my thought a beam from its true sun…which has never since departed from me.” And what was the nature of that thought? She later wrote in her memoir, “I saw that there was no self; that selfishness was all folly, and the result of circumstance; that it was only because I thought self real that I suffered.” I think Fuller, like many others before her and since, tapped into a fundamental reality. Let’s not take anything for granted, especially that which we think we know for certain. Skepticism is a loose-jointed stance and resilient because it flexes when pressed. Certainty is uncertain. “What do I know?” said Montaigne. A self? Maybe, maybe not.

There is a natural resistance to release. It is the antithesis of control and we are so very fond of control. In death we all ultimately release. But until then I work to lesson my resistance, it too being a practice. Fundamental to our being is a sense of self. But I see in my grandchildren a construction of the self, a building of self, not an innate revealed being. The ego we construct and the resulting self—can it be released? I believe in, and subscribe to the idea of the purification of human character. Admittedly, there is a degree of the absurd about this. But what is life if not absurd, as Camus noted. There is sufficient evidence as to the worth of transcendence. We are, after all, the stuff of stars, as the poets remind us. Let us celebrate the awkward stance of fully human, a being fulfilled. Let us reach for the stars.

On Making Bread

In Life, The Examined Life on June 5, 2019 at 7:01 pm

A recent loaf.

I’ve been making bread, off and on, all my life. I distinctly remember making bread for my grandmother over five decades ago. I can even recall that it was a dark bread and it didn’t rise and she was kind in accepting it, this woman who really knew what baking bread was about. I made bread two days ago. It was a better bread than that I made for my grandmother.

The night before I make bread, I take my sourdough starter out of the refrigerator and feed it. I leave it on the counter overnight and I wake up excited that it is a baking day. Every baking day is a day that holds the opportunity for improvement. Will today’s bread rise better? Will it have a good chewy crust? I’m always experimenting. As with everything in my life, I’m always wondering if it can be better.

I took bread to a dinner recently. I was asked what kind of bread maker I had. I raised my hands, my bread makers. That is the way I like things. Simple.

Recently I’ve taken to folding the dough after kneading. You stretch out the dough and fold it, turn it, fold it again, give it a push or two, then let it rest.

I’m at a place in life recently where it seems I’m sort of folding and pushing, folding and resting. Seeing what happens. Always an experiment. In his great poem, September 1, 1939, Auden has the line: “All I have is a voice / To undo the folded lie,” I like to think that I am folding truth. I like to think that my life is rich and full–which it is–and that a simple fold, a little tug here and a little stretch there, then a rest, and the fabric of life, its true essence, will rise a bit, be a bit stronger, a bit richer, and a bit tastier. Always experimenting.

When I get up in the morning, I can sometimes taste the excitement of a new day. Will it rise better? Be tastier? Will life’s true essence be revealed today?

Yesterday

In Camping, Dogs, Life on August 7, 2018 at 11:29 am

Peak One Campground, Frisco, Colorado

Yesterday while working in the campground I rounded a corner and came upon an elderly gentleman being pulled by three small leashed dogs. I’d met him the day before. His wife had eventually tugged at his elbow, saying, “Enough already, let the man go do his work.” He seemed lonely, though I only thought it because he liked to talk. This morning his wife was not present, only the man and his dogs. I said hello and we talked about dogs for a few minutes. One dog, a white terrier, feisty and keen, was the focus of his comments. As he talked the three leashes became intertwined but the man didn’t seem to notice. The terrier had been his daughter’s dog, he said. She got him when she learned she had breast cancer. She wanted the companionship. The man talked without emotion, in that way people from Kansas do. The flatness of his voice settled on me in emotional way. I began to tear up.  “She told me she wanted me to raise him if she didn’t make it.” We’d had a rain the night before and the tacky aroma of pine was suddenly apparent. I was wearing a jacket, it being cold. I took off my glasses and wiped my tears. The little white terrier was busy sniffing the edge of my boot, likely picking up Lucy’s scent–Lucy, waiting patiently for my return down the hill and across the campground.

How to Think

In Life, Memoir, Nature, The Examined Life, Wisdom on May 9, 2018 at 8:00 am

Moleskine notes

Three weeks ago I left southern Virginia, west-bound. Today I entered Mountain Time. And I saw a Western Kingbird. I must be heading in the right direction.

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I’ve spent a lot of time, years even, contemplating how to best live. But the real question is not How to Live, but How to Think. Everything follows our thinking, including our happiness.

“A man is as miserable as he things he is.” ~ Seneca.

Conversely, is a person as happy as he or she thinks they are?

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“At the break of day, when you are reluctant to get up, have this thought ready to mind: ‘I am getting up for a human being’s work…I am going out to do what I was born for…plants, birds, ants, spiders, bees all doing their own work, each helping in their own work, each helping in their own way to order the world…do you not want to do the work of a human being…to follow the demands of your own nature?” ~ Marcus Aureluis

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Man in restaurant behind me just returned his water because it had a lemon in it. “Oh my god,” said the waitress. “I’m so sorry. And I totally brag about our water too,” she said.

I must be in California.

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It is late in the afternoon and the sun is low. Lucy is asleep beside the river. I am thinking about something Seneca said: plunging oneself into the totality of the world. What does that mean, I wonder? I don’t know precisely, but it must have something to do with the flight of the terns over the lake this evening. It must have something to do with the way the bark of the willow over there is gnarled. And yes, it must have something to do with that fish who just pierced the surface and the rings that are radiating toward me. Yes, that must be it. The totality of the world.

 

Harmony

In Happiness, Life, Wisdom on March 23, 2018 at 8:04 am

I don’t do New Year resolutions, but this year I did something similar. I selected a word I wanted to focus on for 2018. It’s a touchstone* of sorts, something one turns to for guidance and direction. My word is Harmony.

I can’t directly say how harmony presented itself. I suspect it was the result of current social conditions. I cannot recall a time of such discord previously. I was born in 1955 so I was a young person in the sixties and seventies. I remember the cultural upheavals of those times. Indeed, I vividly recall my frustration at not being old enough to truly participate in what was going on, the war protests, the “Summer of Love,” and such. Those were tumultuous times certainly. But they didn’t seem to carry the personal import these heavy days do. Regardless, I wanted to do something to counter discord as best I could, in my own little personal way. Consequently, Harmony.

We’re only a third of the way into the year. Is it proper to take an assessment of my personal contribution to harmony? That itself is a big assumption. Have I, in some fashion, contributed to world/personal/social harmony?

Well yes, I think so.

In my world an action can take three forms, or a combination of: body, speech, or mind.

Body. Speech. Mind.

Actions of the body, related to harmony, might be manifested by a hug, a handshake, a smile. Hold the door for someone, wave to a neighbor, let the car merge in front of you.

Actions of speech–that gets a little trickier. We all know words can hurt. Don’t use hurtful words. It sounds simple enough. Hello. You’re welcome. Good morning. These are words we like hearing. But how many times do we make a snide comment, use a rude description, say something disparaging under our breath? For me, in my attempt to train in harmony, I am daily growing more aware of such usage. Being aware of it, I can better modify my actions of speech. But that’s the trick–awareness, which takes me to actions of mind.

Actions of Mind–thoughts, essentially. If you truly want to make a positive contribution you want to get a handle on what’s going on between your ears. A teacher said to me once, “What’s your practice? We all practice something.” We might meditate, go for a run, read poetry, write, pray, clean the house, make the bed, change a diaper. What is your practice and do you understand that it first manifests as a thought? Your practice, do you pay attention to it? I wrote here once about seeing runners having a phone conversation while they ran. I wanted to stop them and say, Be a runner. Be just that one thing right now, be that one thing truly. Be that thing with all your heart and concentration. Pay attention.

My personal assessment, a quarter way into the year, is that my teeny-tiny contribution to harmony has taken root, albeit ever so modestly, close to home. I realized early into this project that there is little I can do about world politics, about discord between countries, about hatred in the world at large. Instead, I decided to be more thoughtful toward my neighbors. I decided to do the dishes when they stacked up. I will make the bed. I will pick up litter in the dog field. I said they were teeny-tiny things–but harmony spreads beyond family. Courtesy gets passed around. A smile is contagious. Civility counts. These are things I can think about, I can talk about, I can do. Mind, body, speech.

I hope I have not sounded too high-handed here. I don’t want to be preachy, nor do I have any reason to call myself out as being better than anyone else. I’m just a guy trying to be a better person, a better citizen of the world, a better father, husband, friend. Harmony, yep, a good focus word for me this year. I encourage you to find your own personal project at making the world a better place. We need it. Pass it on.

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*The origin of touchstone is interesting. The first known use of the word takes us back to 1530. A physical touchstone was a stone related to flint. By rubbing it on gold or silver one could determine the purity of the ore by the streaks left behind. Metaphorically speaking, a touchstone might be used to point us toward authenticity and genuineness.