Nov 302018
 

I am sad much of the time these days, and, as I reflect, it feels as though much of my sadness erupts from fear. I am frightened about a future rooted in an environment impregnated by discord, untruth, misconception. I fear we have become a body politic lacking the interest or will to seek wisdom, connection, and love. In a garden, manure is a magnificent fertilizer. However, the dung created by our war of words, rather than being nourishing and procreative, is toxic to the germination of ideas. Our body politic needs intensive care.

We seem to exist in a world in which few are willing to listen. Everyone, it seems, is willing to opine, but opinion lacking authentic, thoughtful curiosity is hollow. How might the world be different if every expression we utter ended in a question mark—either real or implied? What might emerge from our conversations if we were deeply eager to engage in inquiry-affirming dialogue?

Politics, it is often said, makes strange bedfellows. I recently read Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse’s book, “Them: Why We Hate Each Other—and How to Heal.” As one of the most conservative republicans in the U.S. Senate, is a fair assumption the Senator and I would disagree greatly on the solutions to the problem. However, we are in full agreement on the root causes. In a recent interview on PBS, Sasse explains:

More and more people are processing their politics not primarily as what they’re for, but as a form of anti-tribe. What are we against?

And so, I think you see a willingness among the American public to accept more falsehoods than would have seemed normal at most moments in U.S. history, because people hear them as a kind of rhetoric that is mostly a framing of the other side and the things that we’re against.

We need a politics that isn’t chiefly that, isn’t chiefly against. We need a lot more ‘we’ and a lot less ‘them’.

In the end, I am left with a bit of hope when we who disagree, can peer together and gain some clarity on root causes. If we can follow that agreement and clarity with inquiry-affirming dialogue, and a profound interest in listening, perhaps we can find a fertile garden in which to propagate new ideas, and a new life-affirming future.

Oct 072017
 

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.

Aug 012017
 

Just released on Amazon.com (www.amazon.com/dp/0692920196/), my new book entitled:

Questions That Matter

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.

Feb 022017
 

“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

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.

Jan 012017
 

It’s time again for resolutions, but in this moment, it is not New Year’s resolutions I seek. I am, instead, in a quandary about New Epoch’s resolutions. What might I resolve as we enter what many geologists are calling the Anthropocene Epoch?

Anthropocene, much like Anthropology or anthropomorphic, takes its root from the Greek anthropos, a prefix meaning human, humanoid, or humanlike. The Anthropocene is proposed as an epoch dating from when human activities began their significant global impact on Earth‘s geology and ecosystems.

It’s one thing to conscript a resolution you can review in 12 months’ time. How do I even imagine some action in the coming days whose impact will play out over tens of thousands, or even millions, of years?

Two recent books add to my confusion. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari, and The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert both speak of tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands and even millions of years, as if they are single pages in a novel. The eons, eras, periods, and epochs of the past are forever recorded in stratifications on the Earth’s crust. The history of entire species is often reduced to a mere sliver of rock or sediment.

Harari’s book was disturbing in its reconstruction of the history of the species Homo Sapiens, the humans to whom you send annual holiday greetings and birthday cards. While we like to think of ours as the only human species to have inhabited Mother Earth, some 70,000 years ago, many human species inhabited the planet, each of the genus Homo. 60,000 years later, we had managed to rid the planet of every one of our brothers and sisters in that genus. We discovered agriculture 12,000 years ago, and within a split second, at least by geologic time, we invented the iPhone…and scarred 50% of the Earth’s surface.

Kolbert’s work chronicles the massive environmental stresses that appear to be terminating untold numbers of species—many disappearing even as you read this sentence. Whether or not you accept Homo Sapiens’ role, I believe we are highly culpable.

When I imagine human history in terms of geologic split seconds, what could possibly be the meaning of a resolution to be more kind, exercise more, lose weight, or leave a smaller personal footprint on the planet? Each seems appallingly insignificant.

As a result of our species’ arrogance and greed, many geologists believe our future is no more assured than that of the other members of the genus Homo. One scientist even suggested that in a hundred million years, all that we consider the great works of man—the sculptures, libraries, monuments, museums, cities and factories—“will be compressed into a layer of sediment not much thicker than a cigarette paper.”

Does anything I attempt, as I wander further into the Anthropocene, matter a whit, if every deed—good or bad—is destined to be lost in a layer of sediment no thicker that a cigarette paper?

In early December, I received a call from a dear friend on the staff of a nearby school district. Three days earlier, one of their students choose to end her own life. Her classmates are confused, in pain and suffering pangs of guilt. I will go there in the coming weeks to do nothing more than be with these young ambassadors to the future in their sorrow and confusion. I will try to help them see the miracle each of them is capable of being as they move into the new epoch. So, even if all human history is eventually reduced to a sliver of sediment 100 million years hence, by dint of a bit of healing and hope, we just might alter every forthcoming moment and every future layer of the Earth’s fragile skin.

In this moment, I cannot imagine anything more significant.

Oct 102015
 

Note: The following will be published in the November-December issue of Neighbors of Batavia Magazine. I am thankful to Suzanne & Steve Heronemus for their friendship, kindness and wisdom.

Twenty years later, the paradox grows even more relevant. We long for stable, creative lives. What if that is impossible?

Many years ago, I worked with a large trade association. The president, who founded the association 25 years earlier, was nearing retirement. I requested an opportunity to chat about his thoughts on retirement, and the history and future of the organization.

Early in our time together, I asked what would most benefit the association going forward. “If we had a more predictable income stream—if we enjoyed more stability—we could plan so much better,” was his immediate reply. Later in our conversation, as he reflected on his tenure, I asked what he would miss most. Again, without hesitation, he exclaimed, “I’ll miss the early years. There were days we came into the office not knowing if there would be a future. It was a very exciting, creative time.”

It wasn’t long before I realized the paradox defined by the incongruence of his recollections and his dreams. He relished the chaotic nature of the early years…the moments that demanded creativity and innovation beyond what they thought possible. What he hoped for going forward was control and stability…a future barren of the creativity that uncertainty demands.

Nature is inherently creative. It continually crafts new ecosystems and species, and does it by remaining on that edge between order and chaos. To introduce planning, stability and control into natural ecosystems is to plant the seeds of their own destruction. On those occasions, for example, when we impose control by preventing chaos-inducing fires, forests build unhealthy levels of underbrush. When fire eventually comes—and it always does—it is intensely hot and destructive, often beyond that which the ecosystem can survive.

When I ask people to recall a time of deep learning and creativity, they are reminded of junctures imbued with confusion, turmoil and disarray. They recount the death of a loved one, the loss of a job or unexpected physical displacement. In those moments, of necessity, we must regain our footing, and redefine who we are in relation to life itself. Living on that edge, the insights we gain help us create new futures for ourselves and those around us.

I have spent time recently with a man who has become a friend and treasured teacher. Steve Heronemus was diagnosed more than ten years ago with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—ALS. Today, he is wheelchair-bound, can no longer speak, and receives sustenance through a feeding tube. And yet, he wrote a book, Shells: Sustained by Grace within the Tempest, using his eyes and infrared sensors to choose letters on a computer. He is working on three more.

On September 5 of this year, using only two fingers and his teeth, he sailed on Lake Michigan solo on a specially equipped boat. He has sailed twice more since. His dream is to help create a fleet of boats that will make the joy of sailing accessible to others who have limited physical ability. Steve is fortunate to have Suzanne—who is one of the most resilient, resourceful and creative people I have ever met—as his wife. She just smiles and rolls her eyes when Steve reveals ever-more audacious dreams.

When you converse with Steve, using only his eyes, he forms words and sentences that exude wisdom. He refines the ore of his life, through the pain and heartache of ALS, into the lustrous gold of understanding, joy and love. Steve says ALS has been a huge gift, and that he has never been happier. The chaos of ALS has forced him to focus the remainder of his days on only that which has meaning. His smile…his joy…his generosity, bring tears to my eyes in this moment as I fumble for words to scratch at the depth of my affection and appreciation.

It is exhausting, and often terrifying, to live on the edge of chaos. Just ask Steve and Suzanne. Are the creativity, wisdom, inspiration worth the oft-paralyzing fear and arduous struggle? Steve Heronemus shouts, with his very life, “YES!” Who am I to say otherwise?

 

Note: I highly recommend Steve’s book, Shells. It is filled with wisdom. There are short, inspiring documentary films of Steve’s recent victory on Lake Michigan. Search YouTube.com for “The Hero in Heronemus.”

Sep 262014
 

The conversation left me in a funk for two days…and continues to haunt me weeks later.

In September, I traveled with my wife to Seattle. She was attending a conference, so it was an excuse for me to connect with friends and associates on the west coast face-to-face rather than Facebook-to-Facebook. Besides, I had never spent significant time in Seattle.

As a long shot, I sent a book proposal to the president of a respected publisher, told him I would be in the area and requested a meeting. The proposed volume contained a series of provocative ideas and came to, in my humble opinion, significant conclusions in the final chapter. I was pleased with the outline, structure and the fifty or so pages I had already drafted.

To my astonishment, he agreed to a meeting. I approached the appointed hour with moderate expectations. Certainly he saw something of value in my proposal, otherwise why see me. He must receive hundreds of such requests and can honor only a select few.

It turns out even my modest expectations were wildly askew. He was kind enough to express an appreciation for my writing and provocative ideas, but then, ever-so-gently, splashed icy cold reality in my face. “I can’t publish your book. And, while you are welcome to try, I’ve been in the business for many years and am quite certain no one else will either.” Enter funk, stage left.

In the ensuing moments he provided an advanced degree in the non-fiction publishing industry as it has progressed…or perhaps regressed. “I tell prospective authors to prepare for two realities. Don’t expect anyone to buy your book…and don’t expect anyone to read it.”

What?

In today’s world, he explained, a substantial number of non-fiction books are not purchased by the owner—they are “pass-alongs.” The book was gifted to the current owner at a conference, at work, or by a friend who liked the book and felt the current owner would as well. “So, don’t expect people to buy your book.”

He went on to explain how, in this fast-paced world, no one has time to read books—we get everything we think we need in sound bites or short blog posts. The expectation today is that non-fiction books have a clear message, and it will be revealed in the first few pages. Once those are devoured, the remaining pages are retired to the bookshelf untouched. “If you write a book, select your message, say it in the first chapter and fill the rest of the book with stories and support…but be aware almost no one will read beyond chapter one.”

He pointed me to a book in their recent catalogue whose message was exposed in the title, and finished early in chapter 1. That book has sold more than 650,000 copies, many of those to corporations that passed them along to managers, some of whom read chapter one.

I subsequently recalled a friend who wrote a book of non-fiction. She tells me books given out at her keynotes often find their way unread onto amazon.com selling for a fraction of the retail price…then others can own it and not read it for next to nothing!

So, as I lick my wounds, I remain depressed and horrified by the conversation. I continue to ask myself why? Why spend hundreds of hours writing a book with the expectation that no one will buy it or read it. And, if I were to proceed, the core idea must be captivating and modest enough to be told in a page or two.

Really?

So, at least for the moment, I am shelving my book before anyone has the opportunity to not buy it and not read it.

Mar 282014
 

Note: The following is a letter I wrote for Neighbors of Batavia Magazine in 2008 when I was Executive Director of the Batavia Chamber of Commerce. I found it recently and decided to share it on my blog.

A new book has left me haunted, and keeps me wondering about the proper role of the Chamber of Commerce. We are charged with improving the local economic climate, but, if improving that climate just means more business…more customers…more commerce…more activity, perhaps I’m in the wrong job.

The book is entitled loneliness. The capitalization—or lack thereof—is accurate, and telling. When we’re lonely, it leaves us feeling very small in a large and complex world. By leaving the title in lower-case, the authors insure that even book itself seems smaller and less pretentious.

“However wealthy and technologically adept our societies have become, beneath the surface we are the same vulnerable creatures who huddled together against the terrors of thunderstorms sixty thousand years ago.” As I read this statement, I couldn’t help but juxtapose it against the modus operandi of some of the great TV heroes of my generation. The Lone Ranger, for example, saved the day by revealing that he, and he alone, possessed, and knew how to unleash, the silver bullet.

I had a conversation recently with a Chamber member. She expressed her regret at missing a Chamber event—the demands of her job, and the mountains of work she needed to scale, were simply too great to permit time away from her desk. She has 4-weeks vacation this year, and has yet to take even one day. Every year she is sure the pressure and the expectations can’t possibly increase…only to be proven wrong when the new year struts confidently through her door. The look in her eyes was painful from my vantage point…I can only imagine how it felt from hers. Every time I see her, she too is huddled against the terrors…but she is huddled alone.

So why does the book haunt me? A tool near the beginning shows that I score relatively high on the loneliness scale and one of the key conclusions of the authors’ extensive research is that loneliness appears to be as much a cause of deteriorating health and early death as smoking, poor diet or lack of exercise.

It is no accident that the subtitle for the Chamber’s monthly newsletter is “For the life of your business…and the business of your life.” Once again I am reminded that far too often the business of my life is ill-defined, poorly conceived, and too often simply an afterthought.

Sep 152013
 
Note: I am submitting this for publication in the November/December issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine. 
 
“Imagination is the organ that allows us to thrive on the cusp between danger and opportunity.”
Lee Smolin in Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe


Every morning we wake into a world fraught with both danger and opportunity. If imagination is what allows us to thrive on the cusp between them, how is it we imagine—and reimagine—the world in ways that animate our lives and give them meaning?

We have as many as 100 billion neurons. Line yours up end to end and they would stretch 600 miles. (Of course you’d be dead, so don’t try this at home!) Each neuron can have thousands of branches, and connect with tens of thousands of other neurons.

At any given moment, billions of neuronal pathways can be activated as we interact with the world, but they are most active when we engage with life…allow ourselves to be challenged by new circumstances, unusual problems, different ideas, and unique and difficult experiences. When faced with novelty, we can retreat to well-worn, comfortable ways of thinking…or allow life to captivate us, spawn new neurons and connections, and cultivate our brain and its capacity. Provided we are not struck down by the ravages of dementia, we are capable of mental and emotional growth until late in life.

There are times when being challenged is intriguing, energizing and not overly difficult. I was confronted with new and different ideas when I read Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe by Lee Smolin. Smolin suggests there are billions of universes, and they reproduce inside black holes—of which there are as many as a billion, billion in our universe alone. I feel insignificant in the face of billions of stars and galaxies, but if this is only one of billions of universes, how can I even begin to comprehend the immensity? I could disregard Smolin’s ideas and choose not to be changed by them, but if, instead, I sit quietly and ponder, “What if that’s true?”, I can almost feel the growth of new pathways as my brain considers the astonishing implications.

But engaging with life is often difficult, or even heartbreaking. There is a sliver of the brain—the ancient, reptilian limbic system—from which joy, love, fear, anger and sadness emerge. This tiny lobe activates even before the newer, thinking, imagining frontal cortex is invited to the cognitive party. It’s one thing to read ideas about billions of universes that churn my thinking but leave my emotions relatively undisturbed. It is quite another to engage in ways that roil my emotions, and light up pathways that prevent me from even thinking. In a moment when sadness, anger or fear wells up inside, it’s not thoughts and ideas, but emotions that are the greatest challenge to my brain and its journey on the cusp.

I have been inspired by a woman I did not know well…until recently. Life has challenged her in a way I cannot even begin to understand. Some months ago her twin sister passed away—I have since learned that losing a twin is as horrifying as losing a child. And yet, she has reengaged with life in ways that have amazed me. I asked how she learned to reimagine her life in the new world without her sister. “When my sister died,” she told me, “I had two options: lie down and die or live my life. I chose to live! My heart aches beyond belief some days and that will probably happen for a very long time, but, I will continue to plunge forward. I will not give up.”

So what allows us to imagine and reimagine our world in ways that lead us toward opportunity and away from danger? Choice. We always have the choice to disregard, cower in fear, be overwhelmed by sadness, or overtaken by anger. Alternatively, we can imagine the opportunities present in every trial—no matter how faint and difficult to discern—create new neurons, new neural pathways, new knowledge…and “choose to live” in the new universe in which we find ourselves.