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.

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.

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?

Nov 222019
 

Resource Curse. It’s the plague wrought upon the planet when a person, company, institution or government finds themselves awash in inconceivable wealth.

In Blowout, Rachel Maddow’s comprehensive, forthright, and beautifully written examination of the oil and gas industries, we learn of the curse rained down upon our species as a result of billions of dollars concentrated in the hands of small numbers of individuals. We have selfishly stolen this wealth from Mother Earth—stored for hundreds of millions of years and limited in quantity—for our insatiable and gluttonous consumption.

This capacious wealth, coming out of the ground in torrents, brings out the ugliest aspects of our humanity. Corruption, tyranny, murder, exploitation, and all other forms of inhumanity, explode from the haves at the expense of the have-nots. Countries with the greatest influx of fossil fuel income, because of rampant corruption, often end up with tremendous poverty, horrendous environmental problems, impoverished educational systems, increased infant mortality, reduced life spans, and poorer quality of life.

It is frightening to understand what humans are capable of in the face of unimaginable wealth. What is most frightening is that I don’t believe this is the result of money finding its way into the pockets of a few corrupt individuals. While there are examples of people with enormous wealth who use it for good, I fear resources of this magnitude could easily corrupt most people if it found its way into their pockets. I fear even I would lose my sense of self in the face of hundreds of millions, or billions, of dollars suddenly at my disposal.

In the end, the wealth that literally erupts from the earth, has given humanity the ability to alter the environment to the detriment of millions of other species; likely even our own. I wonder if ours is an aberrant species, so destructive of the magnificent biosphere to which we were heirs, that God is in tears?

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.