Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Marriage’

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.

A Father’s Toast.

In Family, Happiness, Life, Memoir on October 13, 2012 at 6:00 am

To the marriage of Allie and Geo.

Daughter Allison got married last weekend. She was beautiful. The groom was handsome. The venue perfect. It was a good day to be a father.

I gave a toast, preluded with a story, a father’s reminiscence, a bit of advice, and only then a raising of the glass.

A few in attendance have asked for a transcript. I didn’t write it out, and though I’d practiced the outline of what I wanted to say, it wasn’t until I began speaking that I knew what was going to come of out of my mouth. My toast was made immediately following the ceremony, while the audience was still in their chairs. I watched a video of the ceremony (to glean the toast) and share the (slightly edited) transcript below.

October 6, 2012

On behalf of the long-suffering Mrs. Bruns, my bride of thirty-four years, and myself I’d like to thank you all for being here.

As the champagne is going around, we’re going to break from tradition a bit. I’m going to offer a toast, but before I do, I’m going to make you listen to a story.

As Allie and I walked down the stairs just now, I turned to her and said, ‘On belay.’ She breathed deeply and responded, ‘belay on.’

Not too many years ago, Allie and I started rock climbing together. In typical Bruns fashion, we became obsessive about the sport; such that every night after dinner, we’d gather our gear and rush to the climbing gym. We climbed three or four nights a week. We did it for years and we thought we got pretty good at it. Eventually, we decided to see how good we were and went to Joshua Tree, California, a national park, a mecca for rock climbers, to test ourselves.

First morning of the first day, as Allie and I hiked into the park, we experienced butterflies and nerves, all the things you would anticipate. I knew at that moment, standing at the base of the first route, that she was filled with trepidation and nerves. And I turned to you [pointing to Allie] and said, ‘you’re going to climb first.’ She had a wild-eyed expression. I continued. ‘You’re going to be nervous and your palms are going to sweat. You’re going to get halfway up this crag and you’re going to wonder, What the hell am I doing?’ But, I said, ‘You can climb this. And when you get to the top, look over your shoulder and enjoy that view–we climb for lots of reasons, you know, not the least of which is the view.’

Allie, you climbed the first route that first morning and experienced all of the symptoms I’d anticipated. But you climbed through them and afterward you said that, indeed, the view from the top was beautiful.

[To the audience.] So why am I telling you this story? Because I cannot resist the metaphor of climbing and marriage.

For example, at the beginning of every climb, the two climbers start a communication and it’s very important that it continue through the entire climb. It starts with a request: ‘On belay.’ And the response is, ‘Belay on.’ The job of the belayer is to keep the climber safe. In my case, to keep my eye on her. Allie and I exchanged this command, then she turned to the rock and said to me, ‘Climbing.’ And my response was, ‘Climb on.’ And so it began.

As you climbed [gesturing to Allie], you got to the crux of that climb. Every route has its most difficult section. Using the metaphor, life will deliver us a challenge. As you got to the crux, Allie, you shouted down that you needed rope slack. I gave you slack, and responded with encouragement. ‘Allie you can do this. You look strong.’ And you climbed through the crux.

Before you started your climb, Allie, we put on our harnesses and we roped in. The climber puts on her equipment and her partner checks it. Are the buckles properly cinched? Did I put on my harness correctly? Another set of eyes to look over the other, to protect, to keep safe. It’s a duel responsibility, a team effort. Then you run the rope. You take the rope and ensure there are no knots in it, that it’s not frayed. Allie, you tied in, I tied in. Then I checked your knot and you checked mine.

[To the newlyweds.] To use a cliché, today you guys tied the knot. [The audience chuckles.] And today you guys start your climb. Your job is to communicate, to keep each other safe, to send words of encouragement, to protect, to ensure that if one comes off the rock, the fall is arrested.

Most importantly, when you get to the top, you wait for the other. The view from the top is best shared with your partner.

So Allie, you’ve got a new climbing partner. [I sigh.] And I have observed him closely. In Geo you have a man diligent and hard-working. He’s got great attention to detail–which, Allie, is going to be helpful for you. [Laughs from the audience.] He’s prudent and he’s thoughtful, both in the sense that he is thinking about you and others, but also that he’s thoughtful about the process he’s in. He thinks through things. He’s a man with a lot of ideas.

And, Geo, in Allie you’ve got a young lady. [Long pause] Let me edit that. [Sigh] You’ve got a wife. [At this point, Allie, standing at the back of the venue, starts to unravel. I point to her and command, ‘Stop it, Allison.’ The crowd laughs. My voice begins to break. ‘I was doing so well,’ I say. I collect myself.] Geo, you’ve got a wife with a heart which knows no horizon and a sense of adventure that knows no bounds. As she’s matured, I’ve observed that her capacity for risk has been tempered and that comes with wisdom.

[To them both.] Together, in front of me, I see a great team.

I would like to now propose a toast. If everyone could please stand, raise your glass, and repeat after me. The four commands climbers use when they begin their adventure:

On belay. ‘ON BELAY.’

Belay on. ‘BELAY ON.’

Climbing. ‘CLIMBING.’

Climb on. ‘CLIMB ON.’

What a man should know.

In Family, Life on August 20, 2012 at 6:00 am

My daughter is getting married in less than two months.

Today is the anniversary of my marriage of thirty-four years. I believe in marriage and am happy for Allison. The journey her mother and I have enjoyed these years has been most excellent.

I will be giving a toast. I am okay with that; indeed, I am honored. I will also be dancing with my daughter, the new bride, in front of everyone. I am less than okay with that. A slow dance, arms draped, feet shuffling, is one thing in high school. But grown ups should know better. I should know better–I should know how to dance. This set me to pondering other things a man should know. I’ve made a short list below.

Ten things a man should know how to do:

  • Tie a bow tie.
  • Drive a stick shift.
  • Make a martini.
  • Build a fire.
  • Laundry.
  • Change a tire.
  • Cook a fancy dinner.
  • Listen carefully.
  • Discuss one important book

-and-

  • Dance with his daughter.

Didion’s book

In Death, Reading, Writers, Writing on November 25, 2005 at 1:18 am

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Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking is, I suspect, a milestone in the literature of grief. Not being familiar with the literature I assume it must be so; for hardly can I image a more braided, tangled, yet orderly assembly of emotions and observations. Delivered by a masterful voice that is always careful and precise, this book is the account of Didion’s year following the death of her husband, the novelist John Gregory Dunne. A great deal has been written about this book. I do not need to try my hand at the turning the wheel too. But there are couple of things about it that affected me deeply. (This is after all, a blogg entry, not a book review. Liberty is mine to exercise.) To wit: I love the account of marriage that Didion relates late in the book.

“We were equally incapable of imagining the reality of life without the other. This will not be a story in which the death of the husband or wife becomes what amounts to the credit sequence for a new life, a catalyst for a new life….but marriage is something different. Marriage is memory, marriage is time.”

This is not so much an account of grief as it is the painstaking effort to rise for celebration. I read this passage aloud to Carole and thought long on the truth of it: the patterns that a long marriage ingrain in two people, such that they anticipate and know in unspoken ways; and when the pattern is broken, as is the pattern that was Didion and Dunne, the troubles that arise from the depths cannot be entirely fathomed.

But Didion is a “cool customer” –such was the phrase used by her social worker, meeting after the arrival of Dunne’s body at the hospital. She is a writer after all, among the best of writers. So precise is her writing, her account, that indeed she must be the coolest of customers. I thought of Diane Arbus photographing her dead father toward the end of this book. Arbus loved her father. Didion loved her husband. But genius is a constant and turns in untold manner and direction. And that is the other thing I like so much about this book: Didion is passionate about her subject. She pains to understand what happened in her living room that December night, 2003. And does she? When all is said and done, does she understand anything? I think not. But that is not a shortcoming of the book, of her, or of this reader. For really, what can anyone understand about death? Nothing. Nothing at all.

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Perhaps you are interested in this short NPR interview with Ms. Didion:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4866010