Oct 042019
 

Note: The following will be published in the November/December issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

The morning of September 12, the world of Neighbors magazines was torn apart. Kate Sullivan, who, with her husband Tim, published Neighbors of Batavia magazine, was ripped from our lives. The vision they shared—helping communities discover their heart and soul—has had a profound impact on Batavia. A colleague, who new Kate well, observed that she never made friends, she simply expanded her family. We will all miss her greatly.

In the last issue of Neighbors of Batavia, based on Bill McKibben’s insights in his recent book, Falter, I touched on three trends—environmental devastation, artificial intelligence, and genetic engineering—each of which will dramatically alter our future. (This essay is also a recent blog entitled “Opening Door and Windows – Part 1)

In that essay, I suggested that if we were in a burning building, and the occupants were in denial, we could open doors and windows so, upon realization of the fire, people could escape. What might it mean, I asked, to “open doors and windows” in our communities, so we might escape the approaching unintended consequences? Upon reflection, I realize that metaphor fails. As opposed to a burning building, what if there is no escape as heat begins to scorch our souls?

I am reminded of a long-ago moment as I ascended an ancient volcano that now forms a portion of the island of Oahu. In Hawai’i, little land is wasted when hillsides are transformed into neighborhoods. Narrow stretches of parched, red dirt, punctuated by occasional tufts of dry grass, are often all that separate homes from roadways. As streets wind their way up the mountainside, there is typically little safety for a lone pedestrian, with cars flying by on their way to who-knows-where.

One afternoon, I noticed an elderly gentleman tending to the small patch of earth that separated his home from the rest of the world. His was garden-green and lined with a row of delicate flowers—a small, yet beautiful, oasis. I walked the opposite curb so as not to trample his creation.

As I approached, he looked up with a smile, pointed to his “lawn” and said, “Please walk here…it’s safer.” To this kindly gentleman, a stranger’s safety was more important than the stretch of nature to which he tended so carefully.

Of the effects sure to erupt from our creations, the most devastating will likely be massive human dislocation. Environmental disruption will force millions to flee ancestral homes and search for livelihoods in distant lands. Artificial Intelligence will decimate traditional careers and throw additional millions onto the street in search of new ways to feed their families. When terrified neighbors, or fragile families from distant lands, find their way to my doorstep, what then? Should I fear for my soul if I someday choose my needs over theirs; if my own terror overwhelms my obligation to clothe the naked and feed the poor?

In those moments, what would it mean, for me to turn to strangers in need, look them in the eye and say, “Please walk here…it’s safer”? What am I prepared to give up in order to protect the humanity of another? How much should I be expected to give? As I face such heart-wrenching decisions, how courageous and vulnerable am I willing to be?

As this war rages inside me, pitting me and my safety against my yearning to help others, I am reminded of the wisdom given to us by Rabbi Hillel, one of the most important figures in Jewish tradition: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?” These questions tear at me.

Then, as I recall recent events, I realize I needn’t rely on ancient wisdom. Guidance is close at hand—the path illumined by the life of Kate Sullivan. Perhaps I needn’t help neighbors or those from distant lands. In those moments, I simply need to expand my family.

Aug 052019
 

Fair warning. For those who look to these posts for comfort and reconciliation, this piece is likely an exception.

Several recent books and conversations emboldened me to peer some distance into the future. The vista is, at best, sobering.

Bill McKibben, an environmentalist who has been writing about global warming for more than 30 years, recently published his latest volume: Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? In it, McKibben expands his perspective by examining not just the environment, but also artificial intelligence and genetic engineering.

A friend once cautioned, in every human endeavor, intended consequences sometimes happen; unintended consequences always happen. The consequences we intend for artificial intelligence are more efficient decision making, less repetitive work, greater safety, and lower costs to produce the necessities of life. However, did you know the most common job description in the United States today is “driver?” What happens when autonomous vehicles force millions who call themselves drivers to find new sources of income? How many of our neighbors will suddenly struggle to pay their bills?

Genetic engineering could force us to abandon everything we know about what it means to be human. While “germline” genetic engineering—altering heritable human traits—remains illegal globally, should it someday become acceptable, we could begin to design our children. Since only the wealthy will have that capacity, McKibben wonders if we might end up with two classes of humanity: the wealthy who have been designed to excel in every facet of being human, and the rest who become second class.

Similarly, environmental challenges could force tens of millions across the globe to abandon coastal areas and leave farmland suddenly incapable of supporting crops. If that should happen, people flocking to the U.S. southern border might number in the millions per month rather than a hundred thousand. What then? If U.S. coastal regions become uninhabitable, where will those millions go. My niece, who works on environmental issues, suggested the upper Midwest will become an attractive destination. What happens if Batavia suddenly finds thousands at its “southern border” seeking refuge?

I recommend McKibben’s work, with a substantial caveat. He suggests a “solution,” but it’s easier for me to believe in fairy dust. A wise gambler, he submits, after winning a comfortable amount in a casino, will walk away; she has enough for a comfortable future and is satisfied. McKibben suggests humanity has had a good run at the casino we call Mother Earth. We have won a great deal; enough, if properly distributed, to provide a comfortable life for the species. It’s time, he suggests, we walk away and be satisfied with our winnings. No further environmental damage, and a halt to development of artificial intelligence and genetic engineering.

If that’s the best hope for our salvation, please pass the fairy dust.

I was discussing McKibben’s views with some intelligent, astute friends. “Certainly,” they assured me, “someone will figure each of these things out.” It reminds me just how many people have their heads in the sand. They profess an understanding of potential disruptions, but, in the end, are in denial that any will substantially impact their lives.

So, what to do in the face of those who are in denial? Many years ago, an author asked what you might do if you were in a building you knew to be on fire, while other occupants were in denial. You could, she suggested, run around yelling “FIRE!” However, you would likely be labeled a crackpot. Alternatively, you could open the doors and windows, so when others are convinced of the danger, they can find their way out.

In the years since that metaphor was revealed to me, I have wondered what it might mean in our communities to “open the doors and windows” so, when our neighbors become convinced of coming disruptions, they can find their way out. I’m not sure I have an answer, but I’ll have some thoughts in a future post.

Feb 042019
 

If who I become in the world is determined by the decisions I make, the more I improve their accuracy and efficacy, the better I am as a person, physically and emotionally.

The brain is a marvelous, complex organ, and, while we wish it would make every decision with perfection, it often lets us down. Decisions are clouded by emotions, and our neuropathways often turn simple patterns into complex, inappropriate stories. The human brain can be overwhelmed by choice, overly influenced by recent events, and confused by imperfect memories.

Knowing the limitations of our neurology, humans have always welcomed means of easing the stress of decision making. Over the centuries, we have developed extraordinary tools that turn data into useful information to overcome the brain’s foibles.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has begun to compliment and extend human intelligence. Search engines place limitless information at our fingertips and distill it to that which it deems most useful. We are grateful for ratings and “likes” that point us in the direction of optimal products and services.

Today, nearly every professional has diagnostic equipment to improve decision making. Mechanics plug cars into AI to discover failures and find remedies. Doctors have diagnostic databases built from tens of millions of human ailments that insure their prognostications are increasingly accurate, continuously updated, and universally comprehensive. Farmers rely on AI to choose crops and discern how best to plant and nurture them. We are more successful and healthier as a result of these intelligences.

Advances in AI continue to improve decision making. Autonomous vehicles not only discern optimal routes to deliver us to a destination, they eliminate thousands of minute, stressful decisions we would otherwise have to make along the way. Nanotechnology in our bloodstream will soon continuously monitor health, report every abnormality, and suggest protocols without us having to fret when some symptom unexpectedly appears. Since these advances will make us safer, improve our health, and extend lifespans, we will gladly accept the guidance.

Until recently, epidemics were incrementally recognized as patients walked through doctors’ doors, but identification and confirmation often took weeks or months. Search engines, on the other hand, can begin to detect epidemics within hours based on millions of symptom inquiries. If AI had access to discussions contained in emails and texts, it could identify them even faster. Would we trade privacy for swifter remedies? If it means saving millions of lives, we might make that choice.

In the more distant future, AI will do more than diagnose physical dispositions. Based on posts, searches, and live interactions, AI is already getting to know our rational and emotional proclivities even better than we know them ourselves. AI will eventually help us make better decisions by storing and analyzing the infinite details of our lives, and it will not be clouded by emotions, confused by imperfect memory, or overwhelmed by excessive choice.

Before long, AI may be the preferred method to choose partners. We already use dating sites, and information about potential mates, to simplify and improve choice. Would we refuse to be better informed if AI, with its nearly infinite knowledge of us and others, really can find our perfect match? At election time, with comprehensive knowledge of our desires and hopes, and, based on exhaustive analysis of the candidates, why not let AI suggest how we should vote? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to circumvent the emotional stress of making these challenging decisions on our own?

If each of these incremental advancements helps us make better decisions and improves our lives, will we refuse? Was there a frightening juncture on this trek towards optimal decision-making beyond which you would not traverse? If so, recall the experiments with frogs sitting in water, the temperature of which is rising. The temperature increase is so incremental, the frogs remain, even as the water boils.

If my humanity is determined by the quality of decision-making, and AI accomplishes that more effectively than my limited neurobiology, what becomes of me when I surrender? Do I even need to exist? In this moment I feel incrementally irrelevant. It frightens me and breaks my heart.

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.

Jun 042018
 

Money separates us from life and devalues humanity.

I recall an exercise used in a philosophy class. “Think of a problem in your life, any problem regardless of its difficulty or seeming intractability. Is there an amount of money that would solve the problem for you?” the professor would ask. Inevitably, students would find some amount to rid them of the struggle, even though the sum would usually allow them to flee the problem rather than solve it.

Today, many live with such wealth, when we face collective problems, it is easier to write a check than roll up our sleeves and get to work. We no longer face the harsh, but very real and essential, nature and wisdom of life. We pay someone else to face it on our behalf, which eases our guilt, but robs us of life’s extraordinary wisdom.

Before humans invented money, everything of value was perishable. Wealth was in the form of livestock and plants that could not be stored, so the fragility of life was apparent every day. If the tribe suffered a setback, the skills and talents of every member were required for survival.

With the advent of money, life became more secure. With its fragile nature at bay, families could survive outside the safety of the tribe. Should a family face a setback, there was a reserve to protect them, at least for a time. The lives of individuals became less important. It was, I fear, a pivotal point in our alienation.

Throughout much of human history male members of the tribe were the hunters. Men were judged not only on their skill, but also the wisdom they showed by carefully taking only what the tribe needed for survival, and nothing more.

When I was young, fathers—most mothers I knew did not work—disappeared every morning into an unknown and frightening jungle and returned with their bounty. Unlike earlier days, when I could take pride in my father’s warrior skill by witnessing his kill and learn the wisdom of non-excess, the bounty he brought home disappeared silently into the vault of some local bank. Excess was celebrated, not avoided. The value of my father’s heroic efforts was stolen from me, and I was taught to genuflect at the altar of excess.

And, what of the efforts of those who volunteer? They trade time, expertise, and wisdom for the satisfaction of knowing they have contributed to the general good? Gross Domestic Product is the measure we use to value human effort in every country in the world. Tell me, where are volunteer hours, and the substantial gains in human society, counted? They are not. When we tally that with which we make global decisions, the labor of those unpaid doesn’t count. This knowledge weighs heavy on my heart since there is little money that flows to my family for much of the work I currently do.

One image of the prophet Mohammad, founder of Islam, is of a man in great emotional pain over the loss of values in his tribe. With the founding of Mecca—a highly successful center for trade and commerce—individual families gathered enough excess wealth to protect themselves. The need to care for the tribe vanished. The poor and infirmed were forgotten. It was wealth, not poverty, that created the gulf between those who have and those who do not and called Mohammad and his founders to a new way.

Even Jesus, is it said, admonished us that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

I fear that, unless someone calls us to a new way yet again, wealth will eventually destroy us.

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.

May 252017
 

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.

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 252016
 

Neil Postman once wrote, “Children are the living messages we send to a future we will not see.” When I ask elders if they believe they can change the course of human history, many believe they cannot. I believe they can.

At a recent speaking engagement, an elderly gentleman—heavyset, gruff and wearing a baseball cap—pulled me aside. As tears welled up, he told me his grandson had recently ended his own life. Looking forlornly at the floor he continued, “I never saw it coming.” The unspoken words written unequivocally on his face asked “How could a grandfather not see that in his grandson?”

I speak to many seniors because the young people they know and love—grandchildren, great grandchildren, grand nieces and nephews, and others—are at risk. Between the ages of 15 and 24, suicide is often the second leading cause of death. It surprises nearly everyone. The question I am most often asked is “Why?”

There are myriad answers, but a serious and dangerous trend, I believe, is the disconnect that often exists between those I call life’s apprentices and its masters. In ancestral times, children learned to navigate day-to-day life from their parents, but they learned wisdom from their grandparents. The elders told the stories of the tribe, and through those stories they passed along the ideals, principles and values held most sacred. Today, we too often lock away the wisdom of our elders behind the iron gates of retirement communities. As one woman told me, “now that my family is assured I am safe, cared for and comfortable, they don’t come to see me anymore.”

My plea to elders—to you, our culture’s wisdom keepers—is that you constantly look for ways to gently and generously touch the lives and hearts of young people. Share your wisdom. Share your stories. Tell of life’s joy and happiness, but also share its difficulties, its heartbreak, and its grief. Remind our youth that wisdom flows from suffering, and that in its aftermath, life can be, once again, joyful and life-affirming. When one gentleman admitted he, too, contemplated suicide as a youth, I asked if he shared that with his grandchildren. What a gift to learn that grandpa suffered, and still lived a long and valued life.

In an era of decreasing interpersonal connection and increasing focus on screens and technology, the eldest among us know better than most the power of compassionate conversation. After spending thousands of hours counseling teens in leadership forums and on a depression/suicide hotline, I know how much influence seniors can have on future generations. There can be a special relationship between our oldest and youngest generations—one that can energize, heal and inspire.

As Neil Postman suggests, every time we alter the life of a young person, a piece of us lives through them to generations yet unborn…and the course of human history is forever altered.