Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Childhood’

The birthday gift.

In Dogs, Happiness, Life, Memoir, The Examined Life, Wisdom on March 31, 2012 at 7:00 am

I’ve spent much of my adult life contemplating how best to live. I probably should have been a monk or a philosopher, but I have no appetite for monastic life and lack the systematic intensity of a philosopher. Anyway, today I was planning to write about dogs because I find encouraging clues to answering this question when in their company. For instance, a dog would never ask such a question–how best to live?–which in itself is a refreshing bit of wisdom. Too, they appear to live in the immediate moment; they are present, as we often wish to be present–and yet, they don’t know it. More wisdom in that. Dogs (presumably) don’t have self-awareness and consequently don’t know they’re going to someday die. Where there is no knowledge, there is no angst. Only life, bounding, run-over-that-hill, what’s-that-smell, life.

But I must start over. I now realize that my first sentence is not accurate. It is not just my adult life spent contemplating this question. I was eight years old when it first occurred to me, a sister form of this question, how best to live?. I will set aside, for now, my rumination on canines and tell you the story of my eighth birthday.

October is my birthday month, and in the mid-west, where I was raised, it is a glorious month. It is a time of crisp and especially good-smelling air. Usually there is a nice bit of sun. It was on such an afternoon, while walking to the house of my best friends, brothers Rick and Jeff, that I had my epiphany. Our backyards were catty-corner and the block had yet to be partitioned by chain-link fence. It was my eighth birthday, and I was full of my grown-up little self. Somewhere crossing those backyards a thought struck me, out of nowhere, a bolt–and this is exactly how I remember it: If I die tomorrow, will my life have been well spent?

I recognize that memory is not to be trusted and that much of the information we store in memory often lacks the accuracy of history. But the memory of our memories, to put it awkwardly, is not the stuff of history. It is, rather, the stuff of myth, an archive of stories and recollections. It’s where we go to fuel the engine of awareness. I put my epiphany in this category.

My eight-year old self, sun on my shoulders, on my birthday, standing in a nicely mowed yard, was dumbstruck by an existential question of significant magnitude. I have no idea its origin, and there is nothing in my early existence, no family troubles, sickness or death, that would account for it. No Proustian madeleine this; it simply arrived, out of the blue, as if released from an autumnal cloud.

It was a question that changed everything.

I’ve shared this story many times. It is most often received with a look that can best be interpreted as: My, what a morbid little bugger you must have been.

I wasn’t morbid, and it was not a morbid thought, nor did I grow morbid over it. It was, indeed, an affirmation–a gift, even. I have been well served by keeping the question at the ready. It is my mantra. My eight-year old self still asks, If I die tomorrow, will my life have been well spent?