I was a haughty and insufferable young man, intent, ironically, upon a direction of which I was unsure. I am less intent these days and I have worked to lose the haughtiness, though I am still unsure as to where I am headed. A true north, presented as a reasonable and intelligent sensibility remains unknown, a shrouded mystery. Schopenhauer said that walking is arrested falling down. I am walking, and conscious that every step is taken in self-defense, taken to keep from collapsing. I have concluded that for me life holds only surprises and reveals little. I am in a poker game and am blind. I did not spring from the womb playing Mozart. I cannot do math. I have not experienced a particular urge to save the world or develop a vaccine or build an empire. I have no natural capacity for anything, as best I can tell. The writer in me struggles to spin my web, but that is the nature of the discipline. I work from my gut. In short, I exist, like, as best I can tell, many of us exist, without a clarifying direction or calling. Most of the time, sadly, I am not even cognizant that I even exist. When I am aware of the fact, I keep my eyes open and take notes as I am able. The best I’ve been able to do thus far is string them together and search for patterns.

Driving through Ohio recently I realized how much I prefer straight lines. Pennsylvania, on the other hand, reminded me that hidden curves are, conversely, not to my liking. I want to see straight ahead as far as I can. I want my eye to sprint to the horizon. Maybe that is why so many of us are drawn to the ocean. The eye is unimpeded and the curvature of the earth is distant and not threatening. I recall reading that the unbroken horizon is fourteen and a half miles away. Yet, the only migraine I ever experienced occurred in Spain, on the Costa del Sol, where the sun and the ocean and the expanse could not be escaped and in all directions intensity loomed. This was a painful thing to experience and all I take from it is an odd aversion to brilliance. A moth will singe its wings and die over a flame. I am given to metaphor, yet straight lines to the horizon escape me.

I have rarely learned from the experience of others. Not to make a big thing of it, but perhaps this is a vestige of being raised without siblings. I say this, but have observed in my own children a tendency to experiential learning, at the risk of theoretical learning by observation. They, like me, are not keen on what Whitehead called inert ideas. They prefer the active. How else does one go about forging the self, as Joyce called it, in the smithy of the soul? How else but to lean to the experiential when choosing the examined life? I don’t know the answer to that question and just asking it, makes it sound silly. If one wishes to participate in life, action, the opposite of which is death, is required. One does not truly practice a new language until traveling in the land where it is spoken. So, it is with classrooms: one can study, but learning does not happen until the experiential commands deep synaptic explosions. Only then does a pathway, neural and geographic and metaphorical, become deeply etched.

The call to action, to close this discursive loop, occurred on my eighth birthday. That is when I began to slough off the deadening weight of having already fallen asleep–that is when falling down was first arrested.

I was walking to the home of my best friend and his brother, Rick and Jeff. I criss-crossed backyards, yards protected by fences of chain link and yards with gardens, yards with hedgerow dividers, and one yard in particular where if one set foot in it, an old man would come rushing out the back door shouting something or other and generally scaring the bejesus out of me. That is how I remember it. It was my eighth birthday. It was sunny and crisp, like fall is typically in the midwest and as I marched to Rick and Jeff’s yard on this special day, the day of my birth, it occurred to me, there between the prim-roses and the shrubs, that if I were to die tomorrow, that is, the next day, the first day of my ninth year, I would want my life to have been well-spent, to have, as I would call it many years later, lived a life that was worthy. It was, in a manner of speaking, the complete and utter realization that I needed and wished to live my life like there was no tomorrow. I now understand in some abstract philosophical fashion, there isn’t really a tomorrow, tomorrow being only a concept, though such weighty import was lost on me then. It was, I only now realize as I sit here, my dawning awareness of mortality. I am so thick and obtuse that this obvious point has been lost on me all these years. The import of that morning, however, was the simple yet profound notion that I wanted to experience a life that was full and good; that there was the possibility of death and I had a life to mold and experience before that should occur.

The direction of a life without calling can be particularly challenging, I think, to the individual paying attention. But I really don’t know if a map and a clear destination would make all that much sense to one such as myself. That morning of my ninth year, did not find me hell-bent determined to carve out a path. Rather, it was the appeal of life’s multifarious offerings that captured my imagination, and still, to this day, appeals most. There seems something more plastic in such an intent, and less rigid. Despite my backyard epiphany, no clear direction to my life materialized. There is no lack of adventure in such a method. Perhaps that is why I embraced it. But, dangerously, the streets are filled with like-minded individuals to whom one might tack the label: lack of purpose. Indeed, the call to a purposeful life is all the rage. Perhaps I should set a trend in the other direction, the call to a life of indistinct rambling. The suit of the iconoclast fits me. In the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey opens the book with an exercise. Imagine you walk into the funeral parlor and mingle among the mourners of your own demise. What would they be saying about you and the life you lived? Personally, I would love to hear: “He seemed so respectably aimless.” And, “I never met anyone who seemed so satisfied being so…well, so apparently out of sorts.” And, “It’s remarkable how a person with apparently so little going for him, could be so comfortable in his own skin.”

I think it is probably best to strive toward a purposeful life. But can an argument be made that purposelessness can be a focused purpose too? That is a thought boarding on the tautological, a twisted self-referential ourobos of a notion. But self-referential notions intrigue me. Rembrandt made more than ninety self-portraits, far more than any other artist. One art historian, Manuel Gasser, wrote that “Over the years, Rembrandt’s self-portraits increasingly became a means for gaining self-knowledge, and in the end took the form of an interior dialogue: a lonely old man communicating with himself while he painted.”  The Greeks admonished, “Know yourself.” The study of one’s self is a discipline of the highest order. It would be easy to fall into a semantic trap here. Define your terms, I’ve been counseled. What is this self that so interests you? For our purposes, we know what we mean and I am not going down that philosophical rabbit hole. Who am I and what do I make of the answer to that question?–that is the oil being brushed onto this canvas. Academically, this is the ontological branch of philosophy, sprung from the questionable tree of metaphysics. Metaphysics means above the physical and that is rough-hewn territory I find generally disagreeable and prone to dead ends. Yet I am drawn to the ancient charge of the Greeks and cannot leave it alone, as Rembrandt apparently could not turn away from his own image. There is nothing above the physical about that. The self-referential is not above the self. To the contrary. And therein lies a bit of magic.

Well, this horse has escaped the barn and is running to heart-breaking exhaustion. It is every writer’s responsibility to command a discipline over the subject at hand and control the work. I have utterly failed here today to do my job. My pony has run a straight line to the horizon and beyond and I am left without transportation and all that that implies. Forgive me.

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DOUG BRUNS: Husband, father, son, thinker, reader, writer, Mainer (application pending), photographer, walker, traveler, recluse, gadfly & cook. He confesses: to having problems with details; needing more quiet time than most; confusing wisdom and knowledge; missing the summer lakes of his youth and loving the smell of a pine grove. He flosses every night. He is currently at work on a book tracing the history of the idea that the unexamined life is not worth living. His blog can be found at: "...the house I live in..."

6 responses to “I have no natural capacity for anything.”

  1. Simon Smithson says:

    Oh, that elusive true north!

    You’d do well in conversation with my friend Dean and I, Doug.

    Do you think such a thing is actually findable? Or is it a red herring to be always pursued, never caught?

  2. Doug Bruns says:

    S ~ Well, since you asked. I think it’s like a balloon you squeeze at one end, only to see it pop out at the other end. But then, maybe not… True north…let’s see. That was a bad example of trying to say that I think it one of those things that being pursued, only grows more elusive. That is the case for some, like me, and perhaps for you and your friend Dean. There are some, I believe, to whom a personal true north is evident and specific. They are the chosen few. It is a good topic for further thought, that is, by inference, being one of the not chosen. (There is certainly less responsibility!)

    That is, by the way, a very imposing photo, the blue sky and the clouds and all.
    Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • Simon Smithson says:

      I’m so envious/inspired of/by those true north types. I want to know how they feel when they’re making their breakfast.

  3. “I want my eye to sprint to the horizon.” Me too ceptin my body doesn’t sprint anymore and won’t catch up. “…..until the experiential commands deep synaptic explosions. Only then does a pathway, neural and geographic and metaphorical, become deeply etched. “Well you do have the capacity to put a great deal wisdom and insight in just 20 words. I did 34 years inner city high school history teacher. I can testify there ain’t none of then synapitical fireworkins going on the the craniums of the last two generations.

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