“We have no control over what happens to us; we have enormous control over what happens to us. I’ll spend the rest of my life better understanding and better accepting that paradox, which I understand and accept better today than I did before October, 2017, before that first day of incomprehensible blur, before an education in neuro-ophthalmology that became an education in so much more.”
That sentence near the end of “New York Times” columnist-turned-college-professor Frank Bruni’s 2022 memoir, “The Beauty of Dusk,” underpins most all the reflections on his ongoing experience of a rare stroke that robs him of vision in one eye and forces him to live under a portentous cloud of possibility that his other eye may suffer the same fate. It could happen at any time for the rest of his life, his doctors tell him, and it would leave him functionally blind.
Or if his luck holds, it may not happen at all.
It is perhaps a wonder that these circumstances don’t completely devastate more lives than they do, but that is to recognize that Bruni, as buoyantly as he frames his own story, is hardly alone in forging on in the face of suffering, resolved always to make more of his life in the face of it…
“The Beauty of Dusk” is actually part memoir and part self-help treatise by which the author recounts his struggle to first help himself escape a doom loop of loss, grief and fear.
He does so largely by casting a much wider net than the “poor-me/why me?” misery that is a sore (and initially, at least, often justified) temptation for those stricken by sudden, catastrophic loss.
Bruni manages to escape the clutches of that self-pity first by building a kind of philosophical edifice that relies on a certain amount of personal relativization, crowned by the sometimes elusive achievement of “perspective.” (“‘Why me?’ There’s a better question: ‘Why not me?'”)
He then proceeds to search around the country for exemplars of the resilience and tenacity that help confirm his own deep desire not to retreat from life in the face of his malady.
These exemplars, some gathered from among friends, others brought to his attention over his now-long journalism career, are inspirational enough in their own right, battling through blindness, deafness, neurological disease and more to live lives full of activity, accomplishment and joy.
Bruni appllies a well-honed and supple journalist’s penchant for bringing these subjects to life and turning a lively phrase. No complaints on the style and relevance of this fine tale for all those needing salve for their psychic pain. Which is to say, all of us, Bruni reminding us of this by fondly quoting an impactful psychology professor from his undergraduate days at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: “Life is about adjusting to loss.”
But while being introduced via brief vignettes to his long cast of characters who have faced loss, I couldn’t help but reflect on a recently growing suspicion that many books, this one among them, could likely be just as effective, inspirational, thought-provoking, or whatever other aim the author has in mind, at some fraction of their final length. In this case, 150 or 200 pages rather than the 304 pages it is, or the 400 and 500 that many others stretch out to be.
Sometimes, it feels like authors are having just too much fun to let the work that has captured their fancy go. (Believe me, I understand…)
Other times, I wonder if they (though more likely, their publishers) fear that readers might feel short-changed by a slimmed-down volume, even though it recounts a searing experience from which the author emerges with deep life lessons and a desire to share them in a compact but (by my lights) no less powerful way.
So rather than trust the tale as experienced and told here by Bruni himself, the project balloons, survey-style, into a sweeping compendium of voices from across the land.
Sure, it’s hard to argue that any of them are off point or not wise and worthy in their own right, but are they necessary in such abundance?
Mostly, they just reframe the central planks of what Bruni himself conveys with no small amount of eloquence and perspective: that life is to be treasured always but even more in the face of loss, that it rewards resilience, that humility is ennobling rather than enervating, that perspective is hard-won but worth fighting for, that nobody escapes misery but (most) everyone has a choice in how to respond to it. And so on.
Nothing much we haven’t heard before, but all things we need to hear repeatedly—as reminders, as touchstones, as goads to live in compassion, given the certainty that everyone else is at one time or other just as badly in need of it as we are.
Bruni was a youngish and vibrant 53 when calamity hit, but as he subsequently takes stock of even those in his own circle, he comes to fully appreciate the timeless but no less unsettling truth that no one really escapes ghastly suffering. Here’s his (partial) litany:
“Jennifer’s anxiety, Ross’s lyme disease…One friend was recovering from a cerebral hemorrhage though she was under 60 and had been perfectly healthy beforehand…Another friend was grieving the death of a thirty-nine-year-old spouse. Yet another friend, a mother in her mid-forties, was questioning whether a rare cancer that had debilitated her on and off for years had really and truly been vanquished…Within a fairly narrow circle of people with whom I routinely communicated, there were infirm parents requiring extraordinary attention, infirmed children requiring costly care, soul-killing marriages, dream-crushing infertility, ego-shredding jobs, chronic depression, chronic pain, substance abuse and more. But few of these torments were immediately obvious or conspicuous at all.”
It is perhaps a wonder that these circumstances don’t completely devastate more lives than they do, but that is to recognize that Bruni, as buoyantly as he frames his own story, is hardly alone in forging on in the face of suffering, resolved always to make more of his life in the face of it. He, like many others he chronicles here, grows bigger and more generous in spirit rather than shrinking away.
Of course, he and his circle of friends are blessed with resources—financial, social, intellectual—that make their sufferings at least more manageable if not surmountable than those mired in poverty or even more horrific illnesses. For some poor souls, adopting a can-do or “What can I still do?” attitude just won’t much move the needle on their condition or their ability to accept it with the relative equanimity that Bruni displays.
That proviso aside, Bruni tells his story and strikes chords that will surely leave many readers nodding along with him and reflecting on the manifold crises facing themselves and their own family and friendship circles. His gift is in giving them voice and shining a light on the path they, too, may be traversing in their particular circumstances that nevertheless reflect a universal core.
Reflecting on the gayness he had to repress or constrain for so much of his early life before the personal and societal struggle finally bore fruit, he writes,
…”I wanted not just to be angry but also to be happy. That past and that thinking came back to me after my stroke, not right away, but as I wrestled control of my emotions and tamped down my fears. When one eye closes another opens. That’s not fact, it’s perspective, which makes it no less true.”
That’s perspective, all right, which is a function not only of will, but more importantly, of experience open to wisdom rather than bitterness or fear.
It’s wisdom that has held Frank Bruni in good stead through his trying times, and which we can safely assume he is making readily available to his students at Duke University, where he occupies an endowed chair in the journalism department while also continuing with a newsletter and occasional guest column for his old employers and many faithful readers (including this one) at the Times.
I bet the kids are listening.
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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: email@example.com
Eye by Dan Deasy, Chicago, Illinois https://www.flickr.com/photos/aphony/
Dusk trees by Andrew Hidas https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/
Excellent timing Andrew, being a long-time “fan of Frank” I had read his piece in the NYT about his health odyssey but didn’t know he’d turned it into a book. After reading your thoughtful reflection this morning I jumped on my Libby App (free local library) and to my delight there was an audio copy to check out. I then spend the next hour on my walk “with Frank “(he reads it so you get the feeling of hanging out together, albeit in a one-way conversation.) Bruni’s ability to re-frame the challenges of his stroke reminds me of the Stoic Philosophers of ancient Greece & Rome and their notion that we can’t control much of what happens to us only how we choose to respond, easier said than done of course! However, when we develop these self-monitoring strategies in dealing with life’s relatively minor daily challenges, we are far better prepared to apply them when the tsunamis strike. I was first introduced to these notions in an undergraduate philosophy class with a “Frank-like” prof named Donald Wells. His lectures really got my head spinning and led me to a range of interesting and useful encounters with ancient and modern-day wisdom from Epictetus, to Victor Frankl (Man’s Search for Meaning), and current thinkers like Sam Harris (Waking Up) and William Irvine (The Stoic Challenge).
I would also like to plug Bruni’s newsletter, which is usually most interesting, and has a delightful section called “For the love of sentences”, wherein readers can nominate anything in print that tickled their fancy. Here’s a short example: ” Elsewhere, the New Yorker writer Louis Menand examined the creative impulse: “You need to have a pretty informed idea of what the box is before you can think outside it.” (Michael Schooler, Washington, D.C.)”
The Stoics merit a lot more attention from this space than I have given them, Kevin—thanks for bringing them up. I will bear them in mind!
And thank the gods for professors who “got my head spinning.” (Also had one high school teacher who did, and he deserves plaudits as well.) A good teacher at the right time changes everything for the better.
I have multiple fears of potential physical failings as I age, and wonder (aloud, which irritates everyone) how I would respond to a debilitating event. Tales of resistance, toughness and the willingness to “soldier through” are inspiring and life affirming. Counting each day as a blessing when I awaken to see the sun, on two strong legs, knowing I have another 24 hours on the good side!
That 24 hours may be a tad optimistic, Moon, given the slapdash, sudden randomness with which our lives can sometimes fall apart, but I take your point! Gratitude for each day that we are in position to enjoy is a deeply meaningful and effective spiritual practice itself, no church affiliation required. Your comment recalls one of those “Moments” for me of hiking up a muddy trail under dank skies probably a couple of decades ago, trees damp and sagging, forming a canopy, seemingly the whole mountain to myself very early on a Sunday morning. Felt a kind of oceanic bliss welling up inside me as I thought: “Ahhhh, my cathedral…”
Life is about one adjusting to loss. It couldn’t be stated more aptly or universally. We have all lost someone or something in our lives. Although often overwhelming, somehow most pull through it with a certain degree of acceptance. When I was diagnosed with colon cancer five years ago, I realized death was a possibility, despite having caught it early. As I look back on it now, especially after reading your blog, for some reason I thought less of myself and more of those whom I loved and would leave behind. It surprised me. How one faces a loss of any kind truly reflects how one sees life. Lou Gehrig stood before a sellout crowd at Yankee Stadium and said, “For the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” It’s more a statement of life than death. I remember when I told my older brother of Pete’s passing, he made a remark about his kindness and then asked me what caused his death. I wasn’t sure but believed it was an illness not unlike ALS. I’ve never asked you, perhaps because it was too personal, but I’ve always wondered, as did my brother, how he faced it. I told him I didn’t know. Life is about adjusting to personal loss, but it’s also about being unselfishly aware of how it will impact those closest to you.
Commenting both here and on your blog page. As you know, I’m in this battle today. The docs have said it’s incurable. I say the only thing incurable is our mortality. Everyone’s day will come. I choose later, thank you. Meanwhile, today is a gift. Good for Bruni. I’ve always liked his perspective on the news, and on life. Realizing there is (was?) something inside me trying to kill me has sharpened my awareness and appreciation of . . . the gentle rain falling outside my window, the friends and loved ones who have reached out to offer their kindness, the surrounding love and peace that a gracious God gives me at this strange and challenging stage of my life. Oh my! It’s great to be here! How is your day going, my friend?
Robert, meet my friend David, recently diagnosed with cancer and blogging about it on the Caring Bridge site at: https://tinyurl.com/4p6pwjpj
You guys also both being huge baseball fans, it feels right & proper putting you together.
As to your question about Pete, he died from Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, not dissimilar to ALS as you say, though it entails much more rapid decline and most always death within a year. It’s literally a 1 in a million condition, which translates to about 330 people per year in the U.S.—a paltry number, not enough to attract much research funding. Pete faced it heroically and even in good cheer till the end, but it was (and remains) a major quake for our whole family. I miss and think about him every day of my life, without fail. Your question caused me to go back into communications with & about him from that time (2010)—a sobering but somehow uplifting way to spend part of my Sunday morning, in memory and tribute, so thanks for that.
David, my day is going quite well, kind sir, and thank you for asking. I think you are going toe to toe with Mr. Bruni, matching all the sense of perspective, hope, focus and gratitude for each day that he chronicles so well in his book and newsletter. Seems you’re putting all those lessons from your faith (in Jesus, the Mets, the Democrats, et al…) fully into play on this new playing field you’re roaming around in. I look forward to more dispatches as your time and energy permit. Hang in there, pal.