By Roger Barbee
Perhaps if you are of a certain age, you can associate with the experience of waking suddenly from a good sleep with some past act you committed gnawing in your mind.
Sometimes the memory of a person may be present. You try different positions to help sleep return, but find that your brain is too active as it re-plays something from your past. Sleep, if it returns, comes slowly and the encounter with your memory carries an emotional weight. I don't recall having this experience as a younger person, but it seems that as I age it happens more often. Not all the 2 a.m. wake-ups hold the same emotional price, but most center around something that carries a deep regret.
In the summer of 1996, during my first summer in Oxford, I met a young medical student who was teaching in our summer program. Druin Burch was then a student at Magdalen College, but is now a practicing physician in the John Radcliffe Infirmary. This past July when Mary Ann and I visited Oxford, we shared time with him and his family. I also gave him several books because reading and writing have been a constant in our friendship. One book that I gave him is "All the Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life" by Loren Eiseley, the well-known anthropologist and teacher. I gave it to Druin because it is a well written autobiography of a scientist/teacher -- someone much like him.
A few weeks ago I had one of my early morning wake-ups and one of the thoughts was about Eiseley's autobiography and a particular scene in it. I later emailed Druin, telling him how I had awoken with this scene in my mind and asked had he yet read the book. He responded that he had and how much he had enjoyed it, but was curious as to what scene I recalled.
For a year, Eiseley hopped freight trains all over the West before attending college. In the scene I had recalled (for whatever reason), Eiseley tells how he befriended a mongrel and shared a few days with him, but writes, "It is almost fifty years since I last saw him running desperately beside the freight to which I clung.... I will never forget that dog's eyes." That is the regret that I write about. The moral guilt of hurting something or someone less powerful than you. Like Eiseley did to the mongrel of which he writes, "If anyone taught me anything about love, it was that dog." Yet, Eiseley turned his back on him.
What I think bothered Eiseley so much concerning that mongrel is that he did something mean by choice. It was not a mistake in judgment, but one of greed and recklessness. He chose to hop that freight and suddenly break the bond he had formed with the dog. And as I begin to face fewer years than I have lived, I recall times that I have made the same grave error. The regret, I think, comes from knowing that I had made a selfish decision ignoring any feelings but my own.
Life is an error-filled activity. Mistakes happen. Bad things are sometimes the result of a person's mistake. If, on pulling out onto the Pike, you don't see the oncoming vehicle, that is a mistake. However, when approaching the same stop sign you decide to just cruise on through the sign and take a chance, you have made an error in choice.
When I told Druin about the wake-ups and how I view regret as a costly but useless emotion, he responded that regret is useful, even essential. He went on to write how we can't hope to learn without making mistakes and that we need to regret our mistakes. He ended with, "Increasing our capacity to tolerate the mistakes and their regret reinforces the only ability of ours that counts for anything, the ability to learn from experience."
To return to Eiseley and the mongrel, we see a choice made that 50 years later still caused regret. His was not an honest mistake that led him to learning more about life and living it, but a choice that haunted him forever. One that, I fear, caused him, in years to come, to awaken suddenly at 2 a.m. with the eyes of that mongrel burning deep in his mind.
We all may have "mongrels" that wake us suddenly in the dark morning. Like the blood in Macbeth, they stain us, and are haunting reminders of choices that carry a moral responsibility.
Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.