A Crisis of Vacuum

By Doug Bruns


I’m in crisis. It has nothing to do with middle age, though I fit that demographic profile. Simple people would label my crisis that way, I’m afraid, people with little minds, people who have little capacity for probing below the surface. It is easy, particularly for people who don’t really know me, to think: middle-aged crisis at eleven o’clock, and motion in my direction. I wish I could say that I didn’t care. But I kind of do care and have taken measures to keep my crisis to myself. I fear being a cliché. At least that was my intention–keeping it to myself–until I decided that perhaps the best way to confront this challenge is head on and declare it to the world. So, let it be known, throughout the kingdom, there is a crisis going on and it belongs to Doug Bruns.

The exact nature of my crisis is hard to pin down. I believe, however, that it fits within the theme of: Is that all there is? (Upon re-reading the obvious cliché at work here , I find it lays on me like a damp scratchy shirt. Ugh.) As embarrassing as that is, that’s the sum of it. I’m fifty-four years old and worn a lot of hats and they all fit, more or less. Now I’m at a place where there aren’t many hats left that interest me. Here’s a partial list:

Graduate School drop out – Three times!
Husband – Three decades and counting
Father – Of three, grown and gone
Athlete – Numerous sports, life-long
Sub-category: Strength athlete: weightlifter, including three state championships
Endurance athlete: marathoner, triathlete, master swimmer
Damaged athlete: one hip replacement; one rotator cuff repair; one hernia repair; two carpel       -tunnel filets.
Musician – Classical guitar, nascent composer
Traveler – Five continents
Photographer – Gallery owner, stock & travel photography, documentary
Outdoorsman – mountains, rivers & trails; fisherman–fly, naturally (the most difficult what to catch fish); rock climber (trad 5.8); alpinist
Buddhist – Zen (of course, the fly-fishing of Buddhism)
Businessman – Pencil salesman (seriously); entrepreneur (successfully)
Writer – Unfinished novel (who doesn’t have one, really), essayist, critic

…and so on. The list could continue, but I think I should move on, with the notation that it might also include a few red-flag warnings, like: (former) owner, red (overpriced) German sports car; (occasional heavy) drinker; flirt and other less note-worthy engagements.

It’s embarrassing, this list, and reflects a life-long (so far) quest of curious pursuits. And that is exactly the problem. I’m in a dearth of curious pursuits. If this were an essay about writing, block would be the topic. Rather, this is a piece about living and I’m afraid I’m becoming what I most fear: boring. I once wrote someplace that my existence has been a quest to prove life to be more interesting than I fear it truly to be. Now, I’m worried that I have completed my quest and discovered my failing. My crisis is that of vacuum. I’m old enough to remember Jimmy Carter charging us Americans as practitioners of a malaise. Guilty.

Nietzsche put Pindar’s admonition into the mouth of Zarathustra: “Become who you are.” (Pindar continued, “Once you have learned what that is.”) This business is extremely difficult, this business of becoming. Nietzsche also proclaimed that the problem of the modern man is that he has no myth from which to draw in this process. This would make my family laugh, as I’ve been accused of creating the “myth of Doug” for as long as I can recall. Damn straight. With no collective myth from which to draw, make your own. (Make up your own rules, Camus admonished.) But my myth seems to have expired, such as it was.

Here are the symptoms: Listlessness and a general disinterest in the stuff going on around me; a new-found penchant for sit-coms; tasks left uncompleted, writing projects mainly; lack of goals (I’ve always wondered if goals where overrated?); enthusiasm on the wan (see listlessness and disinterest); drinking more beer and fewer cocktails; and so on. You get the gist. If the unexamined life is not worth living, what does one make of the examined life that is boring? How does that work exactly?

I am reminded of a conversation I had a while ago with Michael, a close friend, who is considerably younger than me. We just were talking, like guys will do, and he out of nowhere pitched a shop-worn cliché, declaring, “There must be more to life.” He had arrived at that life gap, that place of transition where, with one foot planted in the autumnal flowering of youth, one finds the other foot up and striding across the transom to that other place, the parking lot of mature respectability. The older we get, the more assuredly we conclude, Yep, this is it, it’s all she wrote. I think Michael was expecting some wisdom from me. But I came up short. I just kicked the dirt and glanced around, nervously shrugging my shoulders. The young feel the urge of expectancy, the call that a unique life of challenge and discovery awaits them. It is almost as if life were to reward them, just for being alive. I remember. Later, when that call grows hoarse, then softens to a whisper, one wonders what happened. Ennui replaces expectation. It is maturity, not Nausea, which defines us. I didn’t know how to break it to him, my troubled friend Michael. He was entering a place in life where the wild genes struggle for attention, as the stable genes, likewise combating for dominance, manufacture cravings for a soft sofa and a beer and a Sunday football game on T.V. The stable genes will cleverly out maneuver the wild genes. That is evolution at work. Eventually he will understand. Everyone does, sort of, to degrees. There was nothing I could say.

That’s what I thought at the time. But I didn’t understand. At least not truly. I knew it to be true, this business of how life tends to slow down to a drift, but I didn’t feel the truth of it (Truth?) until just recently. It’s the difference between knowing of a thing and being a part of it. Like the difference between looking and seeing, I think. Or, still, like reading about sex and having sex.

I think I know how this crisis came to be. I’ve been working on a book project, tracing the history of an idea. Specifically, I’m investigating the Socratic notion, mentioned above, that the unexamined life is not worth living. The idea has resonated through the ages. It’s funny, though, Socrates mentioned it almost in passing. He was defending himself, having been charged with corruption of the state, corrupting the youth of the state most specifically. When you read Plato’s Apologia, the record of the trial, you can sense how pissed off Socrates was. So much so that he didn’t back down in the least. To the contrary. The examined life comment was a finger poked in the eye of his accusers. He was essentially saying they, his accusers, didn’t have worthy lives. That’s one of the reasons we remember him. He stood up for something and when he got into trouble for it, he kicked it into high gear. Of course, there was that matter with the hemlock and dying. But, jeez, he was the man.

One can’t help but spend time on this subject and start to self-reflect. That’s where I started to get into trouble, I think. You examine a thing long enough and it sort of disappears. But I haven’t gone so far down the drink as to get to Camus’ place. He starts The Myth of Sisyphus with the assertion that “there is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether a life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” Even if I’d got to that place, I’m too chicken shit to do anything about it, at least not to that degree. No, I’ll just whine, like I’m whining right now. I’ll shout it from the mountaintops, but I won’t jump into the abyss. At least I don’t think I will. Never say never, they say.

I used to travel a lot. I’ve been to many interesting and far-flung places and recently an old friend asked me what exciting locale I’d last visited–that being, in the past, a safe question warranting a long-winded, J. Peterman-esque, response. “No where,” I responded, “I’ve been no where, nor am I interested in going anywhere.” Case in point.

There is no resolution to any of this. It just is. I find comfort though in getting it out there, putting it to the public, this matter of the crisis of my vacuum. I know I can’t be the only one. Whining drives most people nuts, and you know people don’t care really to listen to it. By writing it down, one can at least fantasize of a reader who will stick with you to the last period. There is consolation in that and if there is nothing else, there can always be consolation. There is a yogic tradition that a person is born with a finite number of breaths. The more controlled becomes your breathing, the longer you will live. It’s kind of like scuba diving. Once all the air in your tank is used up, the dive is over. Once you’ve reached your allocated breaths, you die. Stretch them out, is the obvious moral, slow and steady wins the race. Breath less, live longer. Where was I going with that? (Loss of concentration is a symptom of the crisis.) That’s right, I’m wondering if life is like the yogic tradition, that maybe it’s a zero sum gain of experiences. If you front load them all, you end up in a deficit. Maybe that is the problem, I used up all the interesting stuff too soon, didn’t pace myself, and now there’s not much left and what is left is not all that interesting.

See, you write long enough and you can figure this stuff out. I feel better already. I think I will take a nap now.

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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..."

12 responses to “A Crisis of Vacuum”

  1. Mary Richert says:

    So, the other day, I was feeling extraordinarily alone with my feeling of “is that all there is,” and now I feel like there is some kind of damned epidemic. No, I’m not claiming to have started any kind of trend, just that once I spoke up about it, I am now noticing that everyone else really is in the same place in a way. I don’t know if that makes it all OK or makes it that much worse that with all the people crowding this poor planet, very few of us (if any) really have a grasp on life or it’s purpose.

    I wonder if this will be one of the hallmarks of this era of Western literature. In school, they give you key phrases to remember about certain periods of literature and art. For this 20 years (2000-2020, perhaps?) they’ll say “Is that all there is?”

    Really enjoyable piece. It was just right. 🙂

  2. Doug Bruns says:

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Mary. I like that idea, the era of “Is that all there is.” By 2020, it probably will not longer be a question but a scientific fact. “Yep, That’s it ladies and gentlemen. Hope you enjoyed it.”

  3. Simon Smithson says:

    Oh, man, the epidemic is all over the place on TNB right now!

    My big problem right now is Aron Ralston.

    That son of a bitch has raised the bar.

    A quietly enjoyable read, Doug. Welcome to TNB!

  4. Doug Bruns says:

    Thanks, Simon. (Note to self: Beware of Aron Ralston.)

  5. Meg says:

    I don’t like the idea of a mid-anything crisis. I think it’s better to just say life crisis, simply because we all experience a crisis of relativity (where we are relative to where we’d like to be) at some point in our lives – never all at the same age.

    And there’s definitely an epidemic on TNB this month!

    Your list is far far longer and more filled out than mine (and yes, I realize I’m younger but you were probably light years ahead of me even at 29). It just means I need to get cracking on mine. Thanks for this post! 🙂

    • Doug Bruns says:

      M ~ Thanks for reading and commenting. Yes, the epidemic. I wonder if it’s seasonal? Like, summer is over and, well, where did it go? Is that all there is? Anyway, get crack’n on the list.

  6. Jude says:

    Dear Doug.
    Let me assure you – you are not the only one. And I was the one you fantasized about reading to the last period. I hope that brings you some consolation, as you have done for me.

    This was perfect in describing your malaise. ( I wouldn’t describe it so much as a crisis, for a crisis may give false hope that it is a passing thing.) I am slightly older than you (not by much), but malaise is the word I would use for myself.

    I think you summed it up in this line “Maybe that is the problem, I used up all the interesting stuff too soon, didn’t pace myself, and now there’s not much left and what is left is not all that interesting.” Bored, bored and bored! I keep hoping that ‘something’ is going to jump up in front of me, grip me with excitement and stimulate me to action…
    Maybe like you I did too much when I was younger and now there’s nothing left – except a finite number of breaths… and lots of naps!

    Is that all there is? Then let’s keep dancin’…


    • Doug Bruns says:

      I put my palms together and bow in your direction, a gesture of my appreciation at your promise kept to deliver consolation…and the Peggy Lee link. Now that is rich!
      Your friend in malaise. Thank you for reading and your comment.

  7. Brian Eckert says:

    Doug, I think this is stellar. It comes from a very deep, heartfelt place. I’m younger than you, and feel the same way at times. Your piece helps to make sense of the loneliness and ennui we all feel at times. Thank you.

    • Doug Bruns says:

      Brian ~ Thanks reading–and the comment. It always brings one a slight relief when we connect in misery, doesn’t it? That’s not a trite or belittling observation; but one, rather, I deem to be significant, if not profound, giving voice to the human condition. Thanks for checking in.

  8. Donna Pope says:

    Hello, Doug. Not quite sure how I came across this piece, but perhaps it’s kismet. Are you are the Doug Bruns that worked with me at Baltimore Stationery in the mid 80’s to 90’s?

    While your “resume” is quite impressive, there is one thing missing….doing nothing. You have done so much in, basically, half a lifetime that it makes me wonder if you are afraid of doing nothing. There’s nothing wrong with nothing. Isn’t that what zen is really all about? Simplicity. Try it. Embrace it. Enjoy it. Just let life happen to you in its own sweet time.

  9. Terry Ross says:

    Would like to reprint your Jim Harrison piece in the annual book issue of my monthly print journal Black Lamb, now in its 11th year. You may view it (partially) at http://www.blacklamb.org.

    Please let me know if this is all right. I’d also need a one-sentence author blurb and your snailmail address (to send contributor’s copies).

    Thanks v. much,

    Terry Ross, Editor
    Black Lamb (email [email protected])

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