Author Karen Duffy Teaches Her Teenage Son Life Lessons…Learned from Bears

Photo credit: kavram

Be true to yourself, even when it’s really difficult, Karen Duffy (yes, the former MTV VJ) advises her cub…er, son. In this letter to him, from her new book, Wise Up: Irreverent Enlightenment from a Mother Who’s Been Through Itshe shares lessons on how to do just that, which she learned from her own challenging times, including being diagnosed with an incurable neurological disease—and from some hard-partying bears.

Dear Cub,

The Romany community of Bulgaria trained bears to dance for hundreds of years—a medieval tradition that lived on as a modern vestige of the Dark Ages. These were brown bears, ursus arctos, known in North America as the fierce grizzly bear. They were plied with booze by their trainers, and they performed their infamous dances while schnockered.

In 2007, Bulgaria was admitted to the European Union. Part of the price of admission was banning all-dancing bear acts, which were rightfully deemed cruel and inhumane. The retired dancing bears were moved to a special refuge. The team at the bear sanctuary had the specialized task of teaching bears to be bears—how to hibernate, how to hunt, how to have a sexy-time bear. Food was hidden around the sanctuary to reawaken the foraging instinct that had been trained out of them. The Dancing Bear Park became an ursine experiment in freedom.

The sanctuary staff has had great success, but sometimes the bears struggle with the chaos of free will. The difficulty of making their own choices causes pain. At these times, the bears revert to the behavior that the rehabilitation staff were trying to get them to unlearn: When they see a human, they get up on their hind legs and dance a jig.

Free will is a challenge not just for retired dancing bears but for all of us. When we’re scared or threatened, we can fall back on bad habits. We don’t sit up on our haunches and twirl, at least most of us don’t, but we make bad choices, go along with ideas and plans we don’t believe in, and close ourselves off to experience. Relying on unhelpful patterned responses lets laziness imprison us.

We all have a key to our own cages. Reading and educating yourself is a way to pick the lock. The only person standing between you and freedom is you. You are the boss of you; There is no one tethering you or muzzling you or making you dance the tarantella.

You’ve always been mostly a perfect child, which has been sort of annoying. But I did notice that when we were shut up in quarantine, you stopped doing laundry and went back to your old habit of letting your dirty boxers pile up in the middle of the floor.

Photo credit: Jack Lambros

Photo credit: Jack Lambros

Jack, as a young man you’re experiencing greater and greater freedom. With greater freedom comes the challenge of greater responsibility. This is why you need a philosophy of life. A life philosophy is not only about big existential questions such as, How do I live a good life? Why are we here? And, Who thought it was a good idea to give 1,000-pound bears booze and make them shake their hindquarters?

A life philosophy is an attitude. It is your vision for your life. It is the direction you want to go, it is what you do with your freedom, it is your purpose. It is a framework to help you make choices. It is the wisdom you’ll refer to as you navigate the next eight decades.

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus, one of the wisest and wittiest teachers who has ever drawn a breath, observed that everyone faces challenges and that a good life is within the grasp of all of us. He was born a slave, was savagely beaten by his master, and endured chronic pain and disability, yet he became a revered teacher. I feel a deep connection to his wisdom. The simplicity and clarity of his definition is transcendent: “If your choices are beautiful, so, too, will you be.”

Your life is a perishable good. Choose to squeeze what you can out of every day. Life is magnificent, then just okay, then amazing, then it is hard and sucks a bit. But in between the awesome and the suck is the daily duty of living. Marvel at the awesome, and when it stinks, find a way to laugh. This is your life: challenging, funny, and ordinary. The more it sucks, the more you need to suck in the amazing moments. Inhale, take it in. Honor your 40 trillion cells that make you you. You are buzzing with life force, but we all need help in navigating the complexities of being a human.

Your philosophy for life is your operating manual. It will guide you through concrete questions such as, What should I study in college? How do I apologize after I screw up? And, How much should I duke the waiter? (At the very least 20 percent. You are descended from a long lineage of good tippers.)

Answering these questions will help you answer the bigger ones, like, What can I do to be of service? How can I be a good person? How can I live a meaningful life? Philosophy in Greek means “love of wisdom.” Wisdom is the ability to thrive in a complex world and make thoughtful, generous, and insightful decisions. The choices you make in everyday life are guided by your philosophy. Every day that you don’t get up on your hind legs and dance like a Bulgarian bear is a win.

The wisdom you need to follow your own path is readily available to you. As Epictetus once said, it is all up to you and your way of thinking.

I endured years of fertility treatments to have you. Don’t be a helpless sack of organs.

—Mum

Excerpted from Wise Up: Irreverent Enlightenment from a Mother Who’s Been Through It, by Karen Duffy. Copyright © 2022. Reprinted by permission of Seal Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc., New York, New York, USA. All rights reserved Available from Seal Press, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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