Jun 152020
 

“This is usually where the desire to dismiss claims of racial oppression come from—it just doesn’t make sense to you so it cannot be right.”

                                                Ijeoma Oluo in So you want to talk about race

I can be justly accused of remaining silent for far too long when words condemning racism should have been spoken. I can, and must, find the courage to speak up whenever and wherever racism enters my world.

However, I am coming to learn the most subtle and deceptive forms of racism erupt, not from the world around me, but from the world within.

In the past weeks, people across the globe have struggled to face the senseless, persistent, and horrific murders of BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of color) in this country—and find ways to end the atrocities. I have watched and listened, trying to take in the stories of pain, anger, sorrow, and resentment that have filled my news and newsfeed. I listen, and think, as Oluo says, “it just doesn’t make sense…so it cannot be right.”

Of course it doesn’t make sense. How could I possibly even begin to understand the raw emotions coming from a person whose life I have not lived? How could I possibly feel what it is like to wake every morning in a skin that is not white? How could I possibly know the sheer frustration and despair of facing a world replete with obstacles that prevent me from being successful, and inflict constant, lingering fear in me and those I love.

It does not make sense to me, but I cannot dismiss that it does make sense to someone who has lived that life. The only way for me to acknowledge the pain, anger, sorrow, and resentment is listen with new ears. I must listen, as best I can, to stories that are in stark contradiction to my own lived experience. I must acknowledge the validity and authenticity of all stories. It is exceedingly difficult because my day-to-day privilege holds at bay the horrors faced by BIPOC. It is the difficulty of the work that makes it that much more necessary.

As I have endeavored these past weeks to listen with new ears, words and stories come at me with new meaning and urgency…and new worlds open before me. Perhaps, more importantly, I find new worlds opening within me.

Jun 042020
 

Changing the world, it is said, is an inside job.

I’ve used this tale before, but it bears repeating. A couple whose son suffers from horrible bouts of anger and fear take him to a Buddhist monk. “Would you,” they ask, “help rid our son of his demons?” The monk pauses and says, “bring your son back in one year.”

A year later the couple returns with their son and the monk begins the lessons. Grateful, but confused, the couple asks why the teaching had to wait a year. “Ah,” the monk replies, “I had first to learn how to rid myself of anger and fear.”

There is arduous work ahead to tear down the insidious walls of institutional racism…to claw at its massive foundations. I am committed to doing what I can to aid that effort, but, in the end, I cannot help anyone rid themselves of racism until I first learn how of rend it completely from my own life.

How could I not have racism written on my soul having been thoroughly immersed in the white neighborhoods and schools of my youth. How could I learn the harsh reality of racial inequality when my grade school had no one of color, and my high school graduating class had just a few? How could my biases not have been further obscured having been a member of my college’s student senate without people of color at the table? How can I live in my community where faces of color are few and far between, and not see racial inequality? Why has it taken to my elder years for me to fully grasp the depth and breadth of white privilege that paves the paths before me…and impedes them for those of color?

In fact, each of these lessons, and hundreds of others, have been critical courses in the curriculum of my life. I have just been too naïve and selfish to enroll.

After reading, among others, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Just Mercy by Bryon Stevenson, Antiracism by Ibram X Kendi, Tears We Cannot Stop by Michael Eric Dyson, it becomes impossible to look in a mirror and remain oblivious to the biases that run so very deep.

Many years ago, I created a symbol as a reminder…a simple piece of cardboard holding two U.S. dimes. On the back it says:

Changing the World is an Inside Job
To change the world, you must shatter paradigms.
Begin with your own!

Should you see me sometime soon, I will try to have one for you as well.

These are difficult and often frightening times. But, for me, they are most difficult because I am being forced to acknowledge the demons inside. Even though I married a woman of a different race, I am aware I still harbor prejudice and racism. I must admit, and come to terms with, those biased, often repugnant views. It is only by tearing down those walls and clawing at those foundations that there will be any real hope for the future.

May 282020
 

I have used the phrase “This time matters” frequently in the time of COVID-19. When asked to introduce myself in groups, I say, “I’m Roger Breisch, Speaker Provocateur.” Then, I pause and declare with resolve “This. Time. Matters.” Looking around, I see many nods of recognition and affirmation.

But I didn’t realize how much this time matters until recently, when I was invited into a conversation with a group of wise and thoughtful high school and college students.

We began with introductions. “Tell us your name and school, and recall something positive emerging from this time of ‘shelter-in-place.’” As the words traversed our virtual space, it became evident how much this pandemic brought an end to many of the ways we had been living our lives. The hectic pace of the past vanished, and life suddenly and unexpectedly slowed. But, as it did, a time of reflection, rediscovery, and renewal opened before us. What touched me was the number of participants for whom new and renewed relationships with friends and loved ones was what began to flourish.

In 1980, Bill Bridges published “Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes.” It is considered, by many, self-included, one of the most significant personal development books ever written.

The insight Bill shared is that we, too often, yearn for an end to periods of our lives that hold the possibility of deep insights and great wisdom—the weeks, months or even years after something has come to an end. “Endings must be dealt with if we are to move on to whatever comes next in our lives,” Bill says. “Transition is part of being alive, of letting go of how things used to be and starting over in some different way.”

Bridges reminds us there is value in finding the courage to dwell in the time between endings and new beginnings. If, in our fear and confusion, we race to something new, we miss the understanding and wisdom that endings are there to impart. The period of uncertainty—what Bridges calls the Neutral Zone—is fertile ground for seeds of wisdom to germinate, develop, and multiply. If we fail to honor “this part of being alive,” the seeds of sagacity lay fallow.

I realize my life has not been ravaged by COVID-19 as have the lives of millions for whom loved ones, livelihoods and dreams have been torn asunder. I mean no disrespect to those millions, but, in this moment, I am grateful, not for the disease and the horror in its wake, but for the group of young people who taught me how much this time matters. And what matters most is relationships…the joy and renewal that flow from a reciprocity of respect and love with those around us.

Postscript: After one of the students read a draft of this essay, she sent the following note: “After our meeting, I felt more encouraged to look at the positives of the pandemic. It’s like the book, “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. He did not regret his experience in the concentration camp, but rather learned from it. I think we can learn from this—to not take things for granted. Like you said, this time matters.

May 042020
 

What if the answer was deeper, less objective and more nuanced than a simple recounting of the number of times the earth orbited the sun since the day you arrived?

If I asked, instead, how creative you are, I would be confused and disheartened if you answered “5,” “23,” or “99.” Those are meaningless in the context of creativity. I would appreciate hearing that you love to write poetry or music. It would tell me a great deal to hear that your passions are theater and improv.  I could look more deeply into your soul if you say, “While I am not terribly accomplished, I take great pride in some of the pencil sketches I have attempted.” I was touched recently by a caller who told me she loves to write music, especially pieces that erupt from her deep sorrow and invite others to listen deeply to their own with less judgement.

Similarly, if I asked about your generosity, your capacity for love, and the extent to which you are trustworthy and honest, what would you tell me? Should I ask of your wisdom, I would gain insight even if you were to express doubts about the depth and breadth of yours.

With one exception, there is no upper limit on the qualities that define our character. Our admiration for another is in direct proportion to the extent of their creativity, generosity, love, trustworthiness, honesty, and wisdom.

The one exception, or course, is our culture’s, oft unspoken, acceptable upper limit on the number of years we have lived. There is no remark about creativity, generosity, love or wisdom equivalent to being “over the hill” regarding age.

What would it mean if the answer to how old you are was similarly nuanced? What if, instead, how old you are is defined by the character you cultivated during the years you have lived? To which, of course, there is no limit.

What if, instead of telling me your age, you were willing to admit you are old enough to know the limits of your knowledge; that you are coming to understand the power of questions and are less compelled by the veracity of opinions—yours and others. To what extent would you be willing to share you are old enough to focus more on what is left for you to be, and less about what is left for you to do?

I would love to hear you have learned the power of compassion and how you might use yours to ease the journey of others; that you are discovering, when you are with another during a time of deep sadness and grief, it is not within your power to fix, but absolutely within your power to be fully present—and that that is enough. Might you also admit you have less fear about your legacy and are taking comfort in knowing that such a thing is unknowable.

Should we meet sometime soon, and I ask how old you are, know that I do not care a whit about the years you have lived. What I care to discern is the extent to which you have fully lived during your many revolutions of the planet Earth, and developed character worthy of the time you have been given.

Apr 262020
 

The increasingly pervasive, oft vicious exchanges that permeate our lives, whether they be in person, in the media, or on social media, can easily overwhelm. Those, on top of trying to survive a global pandemic, make daily life ever more challenging.

The human brain is a marvelous, complex and adaptive organ that enables us to observe the world through our five senses and use those inputs to create a story of the world and how it works. We use those stories to guide us as we navigate our lives. But what happens if the stories, and our interpretations, are wrong or misguided? How often do we navigate poorly?

I often misinterpret the world and find myself navigating poorly. When I do, I am thankful to discover a beacon that helps me find my way. I am captivated whenever I am presented with a story, viewpoint, or interpretation that call some belief into question and I find myself exclaiming, “If that’s true…it changes everything!”

As examples of how we often create stories that can derail our lives, I present Kanizsa’s Triangle and The Sierpinski Triangle.

Kanizsa’s Triangle (Figure 1), drawn by Gaetano Kanizsa in the 1950s, arranges six independent green shapes to make your brain believe there are two triangles where there are none. Hundreds of times each day we take disparate pieces of sensory information and turn fragments into stories that are often misinformed, or totally untrue. We make political decisions based on sound bites. We treat people differently based on first impressions. We react to loved ones based on incomplete understanding.

The Sierpinski triangle (Figure 2) can be generated by starting at the red dot in Figure 3 and following two rules: pick one of the numbered dots at random, and, move from where you are halfway to that point to make an additional dot. If you do that thousands of times, you will always get the Sierpinski Triangle…always! That is astounding and terrifying.

It is astounding that two simple rules can create such complexity and beauty. It is terrifying because, if we follow those rules, we will remain in that pattern for all of eternity. How often do we find ourselves, often unconsciously, following rules in our lives and businesses? Those rules add beauty and complexity for a while, but we seldom want to remain in those patterns for all of eternity. How many of us, because of “shelter in place” during the COVID-19 pandemic, had to change normal “rules,” and how many of us will admit we found at least some of the new patterns refreshing?

The philosopher, Paul-Michel Foucault wrote, “The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning.” If today is the beginning, what will each of us do tomorrow to become someone we are not today? What might I allow myself to discover that requires me to cry, “If that’s true…it changes everything?”

Apr 202020
 

Does the species Home sapiens belong? Do we have a rightful place among the billions of other species that inhabit the astonishing biosphere in which we find ourselves? Would Mother Nature, Gaia, Pachamama, or whatever name you bestow upon this, our home, be better off without us?

I have contemplated these questions for many years and have concluded that none get to the core question that must be asked of us: do we even want to belong?

Make no mistake, we want to be here. We certainly want the species to exist, but existing is not the same as belonging. How many people have found themselves in a community where they existed, but never felt as though they truly belonged? To belong to a community means you are completely immersed in, and willingly abide by, the traditions, ethos, attitudes, and tenets of that community. The moment you breach the culture, you find yourself very much alone—on the outside, looking in.

Charles Eisenstein, in his remarkable work, “The Ascent of Humanity,” documents the history of Homo sapiens as an endless journey to ascend from our animal origins.

“From the very beginning, fire reinforced the concept of a separate human realm. The circle of the campfire divided the world into two parts: the safe, domestic part, and the wild. Here was safety, keeping predators at bay. Outside the circle of firelight was the other, the wild, the unknown.”

As a species, we abhor the thought we are nothing more than animals. One of the most savage things we can say about another human is that he (or she) is “nothing more than an animal.”

Animals are wild, we are sophisticated. They are cruel, we are kind and generous. Nature remains dirty and dangerous, humanity has produced purity, safety, and beauty. We speak, write, and sing of the beauty and wonder of nature, but we do so from an emotional distance. Even during temporary incursions, we enter, always certain of an escape back to the safety of our villages. Most of us would be horrified to find ourselves “there” with no means of escape.

In nature, every species faces times of peril. And when they do, they do what they have always done to protect themselves: flee, remain and build herd immunity, or adjust to the new environment. I am not aware of a species that races to find sources of water to extinguish a forest fire. I have not heard of a species that builds levees for protection from massive flooding. No species, to my knowledge, ever sought a vaccine for a threatening virus. In the end, often accompanied by horrific loss of life, nature finds ways to live with the “enemy.”

My answer to the question of whether we want to belong is, we do not. In the face of COVID-19, SARS, or H1N1, if the traditions, ethos, attitudes and tenets of the community require us to simply flee, remain and build herd immunity, or adjust to the new environment, thanks, but no thanks. We will use our innovation and creativity to fight. We will stop at nothing less than annihilation of the enemy. In the face of H5N1 we killed tens of millions of birds.

Do we belong? If, unlike other species, our response to any challenge is annihilation, I wonder if the biosphere might be healthier without us. Perhaps, the recent onslaught of potential and real pandemics is Mother Nature’s way of telling us we are on the outside looking in.

Apr 132020
 

“I would steal the stress and abuse from your life in an instant if I could, but I cannot. However, has the chaos you are facing taught you something about the human journey that you can use to help others?” I have asked some version of this question to hundreds of people over the past 17 years. The most typical response is, “You have no idea!” I recall asking one woman, who was bone weary from a life of giving and having been taken advantage of, why she might want to go on. Her response filled my heart. “I still have so much left to give.”

If you ask people to recount the most learningful, creative moments of their lives, a surprising number of those stories will have arisen from times when life seemed out of control. It is during those times, when life sidles from order into chaos, we are called to be maximally creative. A spouse is unexpectedly gone, and the broken family must discover new ways to survive. An unforeseen chronic disease suddenly invades, and life abruptly pivots. Loss of a career or life goal demands we see the world anew.

In the 1990s, when Dee Hock was writing his extraordinary book, “Birth of the Chaordic Age,” he thought a great deal about that edge where nature is maximally creative, where chaos and order suddenly overlap. He searched all the major languages for a word to describe that intersection, but none was to be found. So he borrowed the first syllables from “chaos” and “order” to create the word “chaord.” If you wish to find the emergence of creativity and innovation, you simply need to look for chaords, and you needn’t go far. Except for the species Homo sapiens, every other species in nature experiences the intersection of order and chaos every single day.

Covid-19 has thrown the entirety of the human species into that overlap of order and chaos. Out of the chaordic experience of the last several months, I’ve been witness to innovation, creativity and emergence of new ideas unlike anything I have ever experienced in any comparable span of time. I am heartbroken for the millions who are finding the future filled with anxiety and pain, yet I am astounded by the generosity and creativity that has emerged to try to ease that pain. Money being raised to fill food pantries…volunteers shopping for the elderly and infirmed so they may remain safe…neighborhoods coming together on balconies to remind us of what we have, as to opposed to what we are losing…millions at home sewing masks…artists of all ilks flooding social media with astonishing music and beauty…essential services pivoting to provide and help us remain safe…and, factories instantly repurposed to produce PPE and respirators. The global eruption of generosity, love, even intimacy, is palpable.

Around the globe, humans are doing everything possible to edge out of this chaord and return to our normal sense of safety, control and order. As much as anyone, I grieve the losses, and fear the future we face, as long as the coronavirus reigns rampant. And yet, I feel a paradox in the offing. Will we, even to some small extent, grieve the loss of generosity, love and intimacy not nearly so palpable when life does return to “normal?”

Apr 022020
 

The woman on the other end of the call tried desperately to speak through anxiety and a torrent of tears. “Take a deep breath.” I said, “I want to understand what you are facing.”

“I’m overwhelmed. I’m confused. My life is falling apart. I tried to call my therapist, but her mailbox is full, so I can’t even leave a message. I don’t know what to do.” The tears and anxiety returned.

“Why are you feeling so overwhelmed?” I asked. Trying to hold back tears, she replied, “This virus has turned my world upside down. I have two young children and I have to be everything: mom, teacher, cook, housekeeper. I’m drowning. I try to do it all, but I can’t. I feel like a total failure. There isn’t even any time during the day to care for myself.”

I continued, “First, I am in awe of your herculean efforts to try to do everything.” “Thank you,” she replied, “That’s really nice to hear.”

 “In addition to attempting everything, are you expecting perfection?” I asked, suspecting the answer. “Of course. I take pride in doing things well, and right now, I’m failing at everything,” she said through a renewed wave of tears. “So, in addition to not checking everything off your list, you’re piling on guilt for not being perfect.” “Yes,” she responded quietly.

 “Can we agree that these are extraordinary times, and that nothing is what it was a few weeks ago? These times demand that each of us discover new ways to be in the world. What would it take for you to accept you can no longer be perfect in everything, and be gentle with yourself for the imperfections?” She said it would be difficult.

“I understand, but here’s a thought. It’s the end of March. What would happen if you picked a date, say June 1, and decided to quarantine your judgements and guilt until then? What if, for the next two months, you decided, since life is crazy, imperfection is what is needed. You can go back to being perfect after June 1, if you so choose. But for now, can it be okay to be imperfect? If there are dishes in the sink, it’s fine…clothes to be washed, oh well…beds aren’t made, so be it…every school assignment isn’t finished, pick it up again tomorrow. Could you quarantine the judgements for 60 days and be kind and gentle with yourself?” After a short pause, she said “I think I could, but it would be hard.” I reminded her everything is difficult right now.

I asked, of all the things not getting done, what hurts the most. “With all the other things I feel I have to do, I’m forgetting to be Mom. My children need that more than anything and it’s last on the list.” “So,” I pressed, “if you let other things be imperfect, do you think you might find time each day to play with your children? Just have fun?” In a truly joyful voice, she said it sounded wonderful.

In the end, she told me she marked June 1 on her calendar and was putting everything aside that afternoon to spend time being the Mom her children need. Then she said, “Can it be okay to be imperfect in other things so I can be a good Mom? Absolutely!” Suddenly, it was me in tears.

Mar 182020
 

“I’m done. I can’t take it any longer.” she said. “I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety since I was a child and I simply cannot do it any longer.” I struggled to find words to help, and I told her so. In the midst of our conversation, she told me her psychologist believed every person has a purpose. “Once I find mine, she thinks I’ll feel better. But what if I don’t believe every person has a purpose?” I admitted I wasn’t sure that was true either. “But here’s what I do believe. Each of us can gently nudge the world every day. Everything we do, every moment we help another human or improve the environment, nudges the world ever so gently in a minute new direction. Hundreds of times each day; millions in our lifetimes. And, if you believe in the Butterfly Effect, some of those gentle nudges will change the course of human history.”

She interrupted. “That was it.” Fearing I might have said something to push her over the edge, I confessed my confusion. “What do you mean?” I asked. “A few moments ago, you admitted you were struggling to find words to help. Well, that was it. When I called, I was determined to self-harm. Now, I won’t.”

That is one of more than ten thousand calls I have answered on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. I am often stunned by the unique path each call carves, into the world and into my heart. In ten thousand conversations, I had never used those words. Why, I wonder, was I given them in that moment?

I have reflected on them frequently since that moment of meeting. Perhaps, they were not only for her, but for me as well. Having long sought a deeper understanding of my own life and its meaning, those words speak to me. They tell of the value of many small deeds—nudges, if you will—done every day. In those moments when I rue not having done something “big” with my life, these words console me. To echo the caller, perhaps that is it.

A war rages within, that pits a plethora of culturally held beliefs against a deep sense they may be inherently at odds with who we need to be as members of this fragile biosphere. The older I get, the more at odds I feel with the milieu in which I carve my own path. One of the most deeply troubling cultural convictions is the belief that a human life is valuable if it contains a “big” accomplishment. The bigger the impact on humanity, the more valuable the life. We celebrate that belief every day in newspaper stories, magazine covers, and narratives that go viral on social media.

What if a life is valuable regardless of the size of our “accomplishments”? What if it is valuable simply because the one who lived it, nudged the world in many, many positive ways? What if the “size” of one’s accomplishments have nothing to do with our insidious ways of measuring and evaluating a person’s life? And, since I often list my title as “Speaker Provocateur,” allow me to be provocative. What if nudging the world is all we should ever attempt to do?

Feb 032020
 

I am fascinated how often people battered by life, acknowledge that, despite the harshness of the journey, it bore gifts they hope never to relinquish.

I was diagnosed with prostate cancer a few years ago, but it’s severity, and need to deal with it, only became clear in early 2019. In the months since the cancer’s gravity was confirmed, I too, will admit to many gifts born from the ensuing journey. I feel as though I won the lottery, not by beating cancer, but by having been given it.

In traditional lottery terms, I have a sense I beat the odds. My cancer was first discovered through a biopsy several years ago, but it was not considered life-threatening. Anyone familiar with prostate cancer knows many types progress slowly, so “watch and wait” is an appropriate path forward. However, a second biopsy in early 2019 confirmed the cancer had become more acute requiring some more-proactive protocol. How did I beat the odds? After surgery, the pathology report exposed cancer in only 0.1% of my prostate. The odds of finding it in one biopsy is 1 in 125. The odds of finding it in two, is 1 in 15,625. Had my urologist missed it, I would still be “watching and waiting” as the disease increasingly threatened my life.

But my deepest joys erupt, not from mathematical odds, but from the human voyage on which I embarked.

There are several protocols to deal with the cancer I confronted. My urologist in Geneva, when the cancer was first discovered, recommended I get a second opinion from Dr. Edward Schaeffer, Head of Urology at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago. Putting ego aside, he said “Schaeffer is the guy in this field. As far as I am concerned, whatever he says goes.” The first time I met Dr. Schaeffer, he extended his hand and said, “Hello, I’m Ted.” This world-class physician put formality aside, identified himself with his nickname rather than title, and provided his cell phone number! He made it clear I was to call him directly should any questions arise. Ted Schaeffer put me at ease from the first moment we met. Throughout the journey, he called personally to discuss each development and its implications.

One option, which, in the end I rejected, was radiation. Nonetheless, Dr. Schaeffer, a surgeon, encouraged me to fully explore those alternatives. I met with a radiologist at the Northwestern Proton Center in Warrenville who spent an hour going over every aspect of radiation, exactly what would happen, how they would protect the other vital organs, and even the ramifications, including potential long-term collateral damage. I was astounded by the depth and breadth of his explanations, as well as his authenticity and genuine concern.

I feel blessed by the humanity and humility of each of these physicians. Each, a lottery ticket pulled in my favor.

A week before my surgery, one final “procedure” came to mind that made the journey even more joyful. As I walked one morning along the Fox River, I was leveled by the realization no one’s future is guaranteed the moment major surgery commences. I was suddenly terrified that, should something untoward happen, those closest to me might never know the depth of my love. Over the next few days I wrote twelve letters—one to my wife, to each of my children, my mother, my four siblings and their spouses. It was during this excursion I realized how I had won life’s lottery in an astonishing way. Every letter wrote itself. I was able to tell each person of my love and respect, and of the joy, laughter, and deep meaning they each bring to my life.

In the lottery of life, I have been reminded yet again, I am one of the luckiest, and wealthiest, people I know.

Roger Breisch