It is always an honor to be asked to read at Waterline Writers. On October 15, I read two short essays from my book “Questions That Matter.” If you like these two, the book is available by clicking here.
It is always an honor to be asked to read at Waterline Writers. On October 15, I read two short essays from my book “Questions That Matter.” If you like these two, the book is available by clicking here.
Now and again, I find the work of an author so compelling, their book deserves a mention not only in my list of recommended books, but as a separate post. “Reset Your Child’s Brain” by Victoria Dunckley, MD is such a work.
Dr. Dunckley, over the past 20 years, has been documenting a disorder she christened Electronic Screen Syndrome (ESS). It is caused when the human brain—especially in children and young adults—is chronically over-stimulated by electronics. Symptoms of ESS in youth include, but are not limited to, inability to focus, poor sleep patterns, falling grades, meltdowns, defiance, fits of rage and loss of friends.
I have wondered whether our growing addiction to laptops, tablets, smartphones, television—and the games, apps and programs that animate them—have an impact on us. However, I was unprepared for the enormity of Dr. Dunckley’s findings. It’s difficult to know where to even begin.
Perhaps most disturbing is the evidence that youth, who are often seized for hours every day in “fight-or-flight” mode, face greatly increased levels adrenaline and cortisol in their system. In that mode, the body moves blood to the muscles and away from other critical organs…like the brain. When that happens, the development of the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex can be impeded with potentially long-term adverse effects on cognition and executive function.
Secondly, the blue light emitted by virtually all screens disrupts the body’s levels of serotonin, dopamine, and melatonin, which disrupts sleep patterns and can lead to mood disorders, stress and general dysregulation of the body’s metabolic, physiological, or psychological processes.
The author does NOT leave the reader without solutions. She suggests that any person, but especially children and young adults, who show signs of ESS, avoid all electronic screens for a period of at least three weeks to see if the body is able to re-regulate and return to a healthier relationship with the outside world.
If you have children, know of children, or even care about children, this book is worth your time and attention.
The call came from a young man in a parked car. He was unmerciful. “I am a horrible, evil person. I don’t deserve to live.” I asked if he would be willing to share what led to such fierce condemnation.
Just before he left a nearby store, as he waited in the checkout line, something happened that put him “over the edge.” In a moment of frustration, he turned to the woman behind him in line and let loose an unkind remark. Now, near tears and overwhelmed at having relived the incident, he continued. “It’s not who I want to be! How could I have been so cruel to that poor woman. I hoped I was a better human being than that.” My heart broke for this young man in his deep regret and sadness.
He was a veteran; I was horrified to hear even a few details of what he witnessed while he served his country. I can’t even imagine how I might view the world differently had I lived through the horrors he recounted. Now, he was trying to create a post-military life. He was struggling in a relationship and stressed by his job and mounting bills. His parents were deceased, and he had no friends who could understand what he was going through. He felt totally alone. It became clear he was living his entire life “on the edge.”
When he told me again he felt himself a horrible, evil person, I stopped him with a question. “Do you want to be a person who is humbled and sorry, vowing to try harder next time, or would you rather be a person who dismisses his actions and doesn’t care.” Now in tears, he admitted the depth of his sorrow and how he was determined to try harder in the future. “So, while you disappointed yourself a moment ago—did not live up to the code of conduct you expect of yourself—in this moment, you are living into your highest expectations.” He paused and whispered, “Yeah, I guess I am.”
“Is it also true,” I pressed, “that you learned from this painful experience? Do you think you will move into the next moments of your life a bit more compassionate, generous, and wise?” “I sure hope so. I will certainly try,” he replied.
Before the call ended, I told him how much I grieved for his self-doubt. In the short time we spoke, I had come to know him as a man who wanted so intensely to be perfect. “I am sorry for the mistake you made a few moments ago. Both of us wish it had not happened. But here’s the dirty little secret about being human,” I told him, “you will err again! When we fail, those moments are evidence of our humanness…not our inhumanity.”
Not long after that call, I was having coffee with a young friend who struggled through high school. He was active in Operation Snowball, the teen program for which I volunteer. Now in college, he still struggles. He admitted to the many times he, too, feels he is evil. I know this young man. He has a huge heart, filled with wisdom and compassion for everyone he meets. The word “evil” will never reside in anyone’s description of this young soul…save for his own.
As we spoke, I looked into his eyes and realized he could only witness a mistake as errant because he viewed the world through a heart molded of goodness. A person who is truly evil, would not have eyes that could see evil, nor a heart that could feel it.
In the end, we are, after all, only human. As much as I endeavor to turn every moment into one of worth and value, I know I will fail again and again. But when we are able to witness failures as evidence of our humanness, and endeavor to redeem ourselves in the future, our capacity for compassion, generosity, and wisdom expands. Those moments become proof of our growing goodness, not our inhumanity.
“Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.”
These provocative words remind me of a question I was asked many years ago…one that haunts me to this very moment. “How do I know that the life I am living is my life.”
The question turns on a deeply philosophical issue: Is this life one of my creation, or is it possible there is an extraordinary life written in the heavens and my task is to discover it—listen carefully for its clues—and then to live into it fully. Not predestination—a life tied to inescapable outcomes—but a life of beauty and meaning available as a gift to be opened and revealed. If it is, how might I unwrap it and bring it naked into the world?
In my years on Earth, I have been given many hints that point to truths about who I am…and some that point me away from my essence. How do we sift the life-giving wheat from the painful, hurtful chaff of life? Perhaps the task is to discover ears that can hear, and eyes that can see, the core of who we are.
When I was in high school, a Christian Brother turned to me unexpectedly one day and said, “Roger, you get along with everyone.” The words pierced me. I wanted to believe them. They were kind and from his heart. But I brushed them off as too beautiful. Even today I find I have many friends, and few people with whom I do not get along.
As a junior in a Catholic high school I was asked to speak at a retreat about the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding life. I spoke of the power of listening and following the call of a higher power. To this day, I still find the most powerful moments in my life are when I am listening for the call of an authority beyond me.
I hated writing essays in high school, but not many years later I had to write essays to accompany my applications to business school. I found myself writing with a passion I had never felt. When the words stopped coming and the paragraphs and thoughts seemed complete I asked two high school English teachers to edit them. I waited with baited breath for their critique. They told me not to change a word! To this day I find that words when words emanate from a deep place I feel most alive…most honest…most like the authentic Roger I am still getting to know.
At her last Snowball weekend retreat, when I thanked her again for asking me to become involved, she looked at me and said “I believe I came here to bring you to Snowball. You are my gift to this organization.”
I am reminded of a prayer. “Oh God, please help me to accept the reality of my life…no matter how beautiful it is.”
Each of us is given many clues as to who you are…or are meant to be. However, we also receive the chaff of life—messages of hurt and distraction. We need to learn how to walk carefully past those and not allow them to claim us. The ones we most need to heed are the ones that pierce us with their authenticity, those that feel true but too close to our heart, ones we wish to deny because of our fear we cannot live fully into them.
When a Christian Brother, retreat leader, truthful teacher, or a child looks me in the eye and says, “This I see in you,” I have been handed a valuable and delicate ribbon. When I tug gently, I begin to unwrap my gifts. Then and only then can I begin to live MY life.
A friend recently left her youngest son at college, and is struggling with the emotions erupting inside her. I was reminded of a piece I wrote many years ago when we took our son to college. (Posted previously in November of 2016.)
“What’s happen’n here is a long goodbye.”
Country artists Brooks & Dunn
Why, I wonder, is saying goodbye sometimes so very difficult?
When we took our son, David, to college many years ago, leaving him was harder than I imagined it would be. The morning after we returned home, I awoke early and could feel his absence weighing heavily on my heart. What made me so sad was the realization that the young man I would encounter in the future would be a different person. He would always be the son I love, but he would be my son in a different way—increasingly he would become be his own person. What’s confusing is that my sorrow did not erupt from a desire to have him remain the boy I had known. Quite the contrary, I was in awe of the thoughtful, responsible, creative, enthusiastic young man he was becoming. I was so amazed that I often kidded him by telling him I was sure the hospital must have given us the wrong child!
So if the deep sadness does not come from saying goodbye to the young boy as he became a man, then from where did it emanate? What I was coming to realize is that there was a second person to whom I needed to bid farewell—a person far more difficult to leave behind. I had to, I came to discover, say goodbye to the father I knew myself to be. I would always be available when he needed me, but the simple truth is that he would need me less. I would be less important—or maybe important in a different way—as he began to make his own way in the world.
And while I could love, and be inspired by, the young man we would welcome into the family, I was less comfortable with, or confident in my ability to welcome, the father who must show up. I could no longer treat David as if he were merely revision 1.01 of the boy who left us. But could I stop myself from offering the unsolicited advice that seemed so necessary when he was younger? How could I give up the fear that if I don’t watch over him—if I didn’t co-manage his life—that the suffering he would inevitably face would not destroy him? Where would I find the strength to know that he really did have the wisdom to create his own life?
Saying adieu to the father who is over-protective, the one essential to his son’s success, the one who must protect him from the oft-scary world…that is a really long goodbye.
From the back Cover:
Would you be willing to share with me, why you want to live?
This question, asked of people so bereft of joy and connection that they have considered ending their lives, has taught Roger Breisch much about life and the human journey.
Having logged more than 3000 hours answering calls on suicide hotlines, Breisch has come to know the vital, often life-saving role that questions play in our daily discourse. “Answers have a way of ending discovery and learning,” he declares in Questions That Matter, his first collection of writings inspired, in part, by his revelatory experiences talking people off the ledge. “Captivating questions, however, open us to unimaginable possibilities…”
Breisch’s provocative essays explore profound truths hidden within the familiar questions we all share–questions about our lives, our work, our relationships, our gifts, and what, if anything, they mean. “We all struggle to know how to live in a complex and confusing world,” he reminds us. “We desperately want to know what the future might bring for us and humanity…”
Questions That Matter provides insights far more enlightening than pat answers about an unknowable future. Every page is watermarked with healing wisdom that guides us back to the things that matter most on the journey forward – the love and kindness that illuminate our individual lives, and collective soul.
The caller could barely begin the conversation. “I feel as though I’m having a nervous breakdown,” he said in a voice trembling with fear, sadness and deep pain.
In the next few moments, his heart broke open. A woman he has cared for…a person for whom he has done a great many things over four years…recently turned on him and said some hateful, hurtful things. “She actually told me she wished I was dead!” Because he had had such trust in her, not only was his heart broken, he felt ruined by her words. His self-esteem was shattered. He felt himself, in that moment, to be a less-human being than before she tore him asunder.
As we continued, he gave me a glimpse into his life. He told me of the many things he did for his woman-friend and her sons over the years, and how much it hurt to have those things simply tossed aside. He told me he was fiercely loyal to friends. “If you’re my friend, and you need me, I’ll be there in a minute.” He told me of the hours he volunteers at a local not-for-profit. “Over the years, we have been able to help thousands of people. I love that work.” He even shared some of the success he has had in business.
As we talked, I felt a huge discrepancy between his core goodness, and the person he feared he might be based on the life-draining labels he heard spewed in his direction. I asked if he could acknowledge his kindness and generosity despite his fear and confusion. “Aren’t you really a good person?” I asked. “I’m far from perfect. I’ve made lots of mistakes,” he replied. “We all do,” I said, “but it sounds like you do what’s right as often as you can.” The longer we talked, the stronger his voice became. Fear and sadness slowly faded, and a sense of calm emerged. There were even a few moments of joy tinged with laughter. I asked again if he might witness the core of goodness that was the foundation of his character. “It’s hard, but I think so.”
As is so often the case, his openness, candor, and willingness to share the often-immense difficulties of the human journey, felt like an enormous gift in my life. When I told him he was a gift, he paused. “That is one of the nicest things anyone has said to me.” With that, I thought our time together had ended. However, not 20 minutes later, he called again. “I have a close friend who has supported me so many times over the years. I remembered what you told me, so I had to call him and tell him what a gift he has been in my life. He, too, was touched.”
The giving and receiving of gifts—especially the hundreds we give and receive every day out of love—is one of the most powerful forces in the Universe.
Many years ago, the author Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote, “At the deepest level, there is no giver, no gift, and no recipient…only the universe rearranging itself.” The Universe is also rearranged by anger, fear, and hatred, but the one that emerges from the giving and receiving of loving gifts is the one I hope to inhabit until my time on this Earth has come to an end.
The question begs another: What is the “It” to which I refer?
Pardon me if I slip momentarily, but unapologetically, from inquiry to certainty. The “It” to which I refer is fully inclusive. I can think of little in all human experience, knowledge, perception, or wisdom that we should allow to slip from our inquisitive purview. I have come to know that virtually everything I have thought, felt, and believed in my lifetime has been altered by the battering ram of deep inquiry. Perhaps “battering ram” sounds overly violent. But then, while wisdom sometimes enters my world quiescently, the most meaningful insights disrupt my thinking and beliefs in radical and profoundly disturbing ways.
When I enter each day with a sense of wonder—with a mind willing to question old beliefs and see anew—I am gifted with learning and insights from people with extraordinary wisdom—those who call the suicide hotline and allow me a brief portal into their oft-difficult world…teens in Operation Snowball who instruct me in the art of living in the face of deep pain and despair…my friends at the Socrates Café who challenge each other to peer ever more deeply into what we do not yet know. I have come to understand that the only certainty in life is there is nothing certain. If there is naught yet to be discovered, if I am destined to see in twenty years, exactly as I see today, what is the meaning of moving forward?
So, should we see it another way, when “it” refers to every shred of human knowledge and wisdom? I believe we have no choice.
We have no choice because the human journey has been defined by seeing in new ways. Little of what I believe is as it was a few years ago. Similarly, little of what we believe as a species is as it was even a few decades ago, let alone in centuries past. How arrogant to believe we have nearly exhausted the human quest for learning and wisdom! If we are nearing the end of our pursuit of wisdom, what then do we expect of the species, should we survive into the millennia ahead? Nothing new? No further insights into the meaning of existence? No new perceptions of our relationship to each other and to the biosphere? No unique, creative understanding of our lives and the life of the Universe? No new thoughts or feelings about what is beyond? If there is to be nothing new, nothing miraculous, nothing to take our collective breath away, what then for the species?
While the story of humanity has been animated by innovation and creative thought, there is a more pervasion reason why we have no choice but to see it another way. The path hewn by our current and past “wisdom” seems to have led us down a rabbit hole. Our creativity has led to unfathomable wealth (for some), unimaginable comfort (for a portion) and inconceivably complex theories about the nature of the Universe. And yet, as a global community, too many have been left far behind. We suffer from huge deficits in mental and emotional health. Millions have little edible food or potable water. We seem always to be at the brink of some new dis-ease that threatens millions or billions of humans and an uncountable number of other living organisms. We mutilate the landscape in the name of technological progress. We poison the environment and look the other way as the repercussions loom ominously.
I wonder if there was ever an age during which humans moved more gracefully with the rhythm of the Universe. How ironic it would be for the species to gain such deep insight into the nature of reality that we find ourselves returning to wisdom humans may have held in the millennia before we came to believe we were superior to all…masters of all we perceived.
Should we fail to see, feel and understand in profoundly new ways, I wonder if Mother Earth just might choose a future without us.
One evening this past February, at Operation Snowball, the teen leadership program for which I volunteer, a young woman approached me about a deep sadness that momentarily infused her life. I spoke with her briefly, but the appropriate words eluded me in that moment. The next morning I sent her the following note.
Let me begin by telling you how touched I was you would reach out to me last night. I feel blessed by your invitation. At the same time, it feels as though, in the moment, I was unclear and inarticulate. I have reflected on our time together and would like to share some of those reflections.
The deep sadness you described is indeed difficult. When we are in that place, we wish so much to be free of the pain. I have spent hundreds of hours on the suicide hotline with people who are trying to escape the gulf they feel in their lives. In those moments I will often ask, “Is there something you are learning from this pain that helps you better understand the human journey?” The typical response is “You have no idea!” When our hearts break, the holiness of the human journey enters it in a new way and our hearts grow. In those moments, we become more able to help others on their journey.
It is sometimes helpful to think of all the emotions that populate our lives—sadness, joy, anger, fear, etc.—as passing clouds. They come into our purview, and whether we want them to stay or not, they pass away. It is the definition of being human. The journey is to notice them and see what they have to teach us about being human. If we view them as teachers, we can also see each and every one as gifts. We can be thankful for them…and not grow attached to them. They will go…and one day return to teach us yet again.
Gianna, you (and your sister) are amazing gifts in the lives of so many of us. Your joy, your kindness, the love you have for each other, changes each of us for the better. You inform us in your own unique way, about the miracle of the human journey. As long as you continue to grow into the extraordinary young woman you are becoming, and are willing to let your life speak to others, then let the sadness simply evaporate. That cloud, too will pass.
Finally, this morning as I was reflecting on our time together, I was reading The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, a conversation between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Two quotes from that profound volume informed this missive. The first was from a psalm: “Who passing through the vale of tears makes it a well.” When we allow the tears and sadness to break open our hearts and enlarge their capacity, we become a well from which others can gain wisdom and strength.
The second is, “And so I would say to everyone: You are made for perfection, but you are not yet perfect. You are a masterpiece in the making.”
When I looked deeply into the eyes of the extraordinary young woman in front of me last night, it became clear to me that you are a masterpiece in the making. I am blessed by you in my life.
I have been deeply moved by the work and words of Bryan Stevenson. His book, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” shattered my view of criminal justice, and informed my understanding of what it means to be human. How many, even if never having to confront the criminal justice system, equate their value—the worth of their lives—with the worst they have done.
I spoke recently with a young man in great anguish. He called from his car, berating himself for having become frustrated in line at a retail store. In his frustration, he made some demeaning remarks to an innocent woman in line behind him. “How could I have been so cruel? It’s not who I want to be, but perhaps I am. I feel so wicked.”
This young man was living a life, the difficulty of which, few could comprehend or appreciate. He had no family—an only child whose parents had passed away—he suffered from his years in the military, and his wife simply could not grasp his pain and confusion.
At one point, I asked, given the choice, would he wish to be a person who erred and was sorry, or one who violates another and simply does not care. “I want to be one who is sorry and tries to do better.” “Then,” I pointed out, “you are being precisely the person you wish to be. You made a human mistake in the midst of your difficult life, and you are sorry. That does not make you wicked or evil. It makes you human.”
“If this happens again,” I pressed, “do you think you will you handle it differently, better?” “Without doubt,” he whispered. “So, as a result of your frail humanity, are you a more kind, generous and caring person than you were even a few moments ago?” “I hadn’t thought about it that way,” he admitted.
We should always be aware when we fail to live up to our personal expectations, and endeavor to do better in the future. “However,” I explained to my new young friend, “there’s a dirty little secret about being human…you will err again. And when you do, remember you are only human. You can, and should be remorseful for your mistakes, but they do not define you. Your striving to do better defines you.”
Bryan Stevenson went on to say, “I’ve represented people who have committed terrible crimes but nonetheless struggle to recover and to find redemption. I have discovered, deep in the hearts of many condemned and incarcerated people, the scattered traces of hope and humanity—seeds of restoration that come to astonishing life when nurtured by very simple interventions.”
We don’t have to commit terrible crimes, to struggle in search of redemption. Anytime we hurt another, or fail to live up to the standards we set for ourselves, we can find ourselves struggling to recover and find redemption. Too often, however, we allow our human frailties to define us, rather than the wisdom, kindness, generosity and caring we gain from our mistakes. We fail, as all humans do, and forget that “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
Each of us is, as well, less than the best we have ever done, but if our view of self is heavily weighted by our lesser moments, we are being violent…and the victim of our ferocity is the person who most needs our understanding, forgiveness and love.