Bear shifted his weight. “When I was a kid, we’d have fireflies every summer, sometimes for many nights. But as I got older, I saw them less and less frequently. As an adult, I didn’t even think about it – until one night, my wife, family, and I were staying at a campsite in…um…rural Pennsylvania, I think it was. And there they were.
“I hadn’t thought about fireflies in years at that point. But all of a sudden, I felt truly sad that they had disappeared from my life.” He went silent for a long time, looking off into the distance.
And Girl knew, without asking, that it wasn’t just the fireflies that he missed.
The two friends lay on the warm meadow grass on their backs, watching the fireflies, with the other night show – the stars – behind them. They had been chatting, but eventually, the talk slowed, then stopped.
Finally, Girl said, “Bear?”
She paused, which Bear hated. She would open a subject and then stop, or appear to be asking a question, and then pause midway through it. He decided to wait her out.
“A while back, you said you knew the purpose of life. What did you mean?”
Bear thought for a moment, then said, “Actually, I didn’t say I knew the purpose of life. Instead, I said I understand the purpose of life. Not the same thing.”
“Okay, so…what do you mean?”
Bear paused for a while, then said, “There’s a slim book of only about 150 pages called Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Frankl was a Viennese psychiatrist before World War II, but more importantly, he was a Jewish Viennese psychiatrist, which meant that when the Nazis occupied Austria, Frankl wound up in Auschwitz, a German death camp.
“The book is short but harrowing. The first third talks about how the Nazis sleep-walked people into their own deaths by holding out hope every step of the way. The second third of the book describes what it was like to live in hell. And the third part of the book is about what it’s like to emerge from hell – and it’s not anywhere near as easy as you think. The book is well worth reading, but let me focus on one specific part of it.
“Frankl said that people who lost purpose died. Someone would just give up, and neither the entreaties of their friends nor the beatings of the guards could make them get up. They had decided they were going to die, and they did.
“When asked by their friends, they would say something like, ‘Why should I live? What can I expect of life?’ And if you tried to answer that question, you lost them, because there is no answer, then or now.
“Frankl said that the only way to answer that question was with another question. He said you had to ask them, ‘It doesn’t matter what you can expect of life, it matters what life can expect of you.’ If you could engage them in that question, you might save them. And if it sounds familiar, it’s because Jack Kennedy’s speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, had read Frankl, not the other way around.
“But that question turns the telescope around. Most people look at the world and say, ‘What can I expect life to give me?’ And there is no answer to that question. Yet, if you ask, ‘What can life expect you to give?’ your turn the telescope inwards, and force them to look at themselves.
“So, Girl, what can life expect of you? What is it that you have that needs to be done, that someone else needs from you, that the world can expect you, and you alone, to do?”
“What can life expect of you?”
Then he stopped talking.
There was silence for a long time after that. Bear was determined to say nothing more, but to force Girl to think about it, then answer.
Finally, she said, “I…I don’t know the answer to that, Bear. I’m not sure there is anything life can expect of me. I’m…well, nothing.”
Bear heaved his body up so he could face her. “You haven’t heard a thing I’ve said the whole time you’ve been here, have you?”
He got up from the meadow and walked slowly back to the cabin.
Girl, surprised, eventually scrambled up, and followed him in, closing and bolting the door after her. “Bear?”
He ignored her, slumping down on the rag rug in front of the fire, and closing his eyes.
“Bear, did I offend you somehow? I’m really sorry if I did. Forgive me?”
Bear neither moved nor spoke.
She sank down, cross-legged, in front of him, and put her hand on his head. “I’m sorry, Bear. Really. What did I do? Please, Bear.”
Without opening his eyes, Bear said, “You insulted my friend. I’m not sure I can forgive that.”
She drew back. “Oh, Bear!” But she didn’t know what else to say.
When Bear said nothing more, she got up slowly, wiped a tear from her eye, went into her bedroom, changed into her nightie, and got into bed.
But sleep wouldn’t come, so, after tossing and turning for what seemed like hours, she dragged her blanket and pillow off of her bed, into the great room, and lay down with her head propped up against Bear’s tummy.
Bear made no move nor sign, but continued his deep breathing, as if asleep – although she was pretty sure he knew she was there. She stared into the fire for a long time, until finally, it sang her to sleep.
The next morning, she woke to find her head propped up on her pillow, but flat on the floor. The door was open, and Bear wasn’t there. She got up, feeling stiff from sleeping on the floor, and went to the door. Bear wasn’t at his accustomed place on the porch, so she pulled her blanket out onto the porch, put her knees up, feet tucked next to her bum, and wrapped the blanket around up to her nose against the cool morning air. The sun hadn’t yet peeked over the ridge tops to her left, but the high clouds were pink and beautiful, heralding the approaching dawn.
And she waited.
The sun had long risen, and Girl had been able to shed her blanket with the warming of the day when Bear finally rounded into view from behind the cabin.
“Good morning, Girl.”
“Good morning, Bear.”
“Have you had breakfast yet?” She shook her head, no.
“Well, go on in and get some, okay?”
She thought about trying to start a conversation, but decided if he wanted to broach the subject he would. Meanwhile, she would respect his obvious wishes, and not raise it.
She came out somewhat later carrying a large bowl of oatmeal, with some walnuts, plus Saskatoon berries that she had gathered from some trees that Bear had shown her. They were delicious – and she wondered why she had never even heard of them before, let alone found them in the stores.
She returned to her rocking chair, and ate slowly, watching the day unfold.
Finally finished, she laid her bowl aside, and said, “Bear, I’m sorry.”
“I don’t know, but your opinion is important to me, and I did something you didn’t like.”
She sighed. “That’s not true. I know what I did. I said I was nothing. I know that’s not true, but sometimes it feels that way. And I know what you’ve told me, about myself, and about how my presence has, well, you said I had saved you.”
She turned towards him, “Bear, you’ve become very important to me, and not just because you’ve saved my life at least twice. I worry about you, more than you know.
“What you were saying about purpose – I get it. I really do. And one of the things life can expect of me is to help you. I’m not sure how, but I know that.
“That is part of my purpose.”