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.

Oct 052018
 

Twice each year, I am invited to speak to the sophomore health classes at Neuqua Valley High School. Recently, the students asked some wonderful questions about working on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-TALK). Here are my reflections.

What do you tell someone who wants to commit suicide?

“Telling” callers anything can often be hurtful. Sentences that end in periods indicate we are not listening. The only thing that helps are sincere questions and deep listening. The only valuable path forward is the one the caller discovers during our conversation. In the end, it is what they tell me that matters.

How many lives do you think you have saved after 15 years?

We never save lives; we share sacred moments when callers choose to save their own. There have been thousands of those moments.

Does the job affect you emotionally?

The work is often emotional. When it is, I try to remain in touch with my emotions and honest with the callers. When I am sad or heartbroken, the caller usually knows, and that helps them know I understand. Most of the stories stay with me, especially those that are heartbreaking, but I am usually successful in not allowing the emotions to follow me home.

Do you ever fail to help callers?

There have been many times when I simply could not find the right words or question to help a caller see their life in a new way. Those calls are some of the most difficult. It makes me sad, but I forgive myself when I am imperfect. I am a volunteer who tries very hard to help every caller. Should a caller choose to end their life after we have talked, I refuse to take responsibility for what was, in the end, their unfortunate decision.

Have you had personal experience with suicide among friends and family?

16 years ago, before I began this work, I did not. In the last 15 years, because of my work in suicide prevention, I have been touched by the tragedy of suicide. I have had to live through the grief and pain with several families. Anyone who thinks no one will miss them when they are gone, has no idea of the devastation left in the wake of their decision to end their life.

How do you know the right thing to say?

We seldom do when the call begins. We begin by listening to the caller’s pain and validating their feelings. During the dialogue, we try to discern what is happening in their lives. Usually, after enough time together, we find questions that cause them to rethink how they see themselves; to reframe their pain and sorrow.

Do you have emergency procedures for someone who is about to end their life?

If a call ends unsuccessfully, meaning the caller is in danger of suicide and hangs up without a resolution, we call 911 and help the emergency responders find the caller and get them to an emergency room.

Is there something you have said in the past that has actually changed someone’s mind?

Everything we do on the line is aimed at inviting callers to see their world in new ways. We don’t change their minds but invite callers to change their own. There have been hundreds of times in which just the right question will help a person see things from a different perspective.

How and why did you get started in this work?

How and why I began is less important than why I am still there 15 years later. Several years ago, a young woman called with a bottle of pills she intended to swallow. After a long and heartfelt conversation, she chose to put the pills away. One of the last things she said to me was “I am thankful you answered my call. If you hadn’t, I’d probably be dead now.” Even many years later those words are etched on my heart, and their memory brings tears to my eyes.

Every human being hopes that, in the end, their lives will have mattered. If I can help another person choose life, I can go to sleep each night feeling immense gratitude.

 

Suicide Prevention Services of America, where I volunteer, is always in need of volunteers to help with their life-affirming work. To find out more, visit SPSAmerica.org or call 630-482-9699

Feb 112018
 

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Frederick Buechner

No matter how far we have journeyed, and regardless of age, each of us has many miles to go to fully uncover, and live into, our deep gladness. I am often asked how I am enjoying retirement. The word retire derives from the Middle French word retirer which means “to withdraw.” To withdraw from the place God is calling me, or to even slow the journey of discovery, just might be the ultimate blasphemy.

15 years ago, through a series of unanticipated events, I found myself answering calls on a suicide hotline. In the intervening years, my heart has been torn asunder thousands of times, and I have been blessed to be on the phone as callers choose life. In those moments, I can actually feel my deep gladness colliding with the world’s deep need. I frequently have tears in my eyes as proof.

None of us ever knows the full extent of our gifts. I was 51 when I took my first call on the suicide hotline. When I was 49 I had no idea the capacity to help pull people off the ledge was within me. I hope, in whatever years I might have left, there are many more things for me to learn about who I am capable of being.

However, this place to which God calls me can be a joyful but oft difficult and misunderstood place.

Last year I spoke 58 times to more than 2200 people; most of them under the age of 25. I speak about what I have come to know about the human journey, and the value of human life. My goal is to, even in some microscopic way, slow the tragic epidemic of suicide, especially among youth.

But there is little concrete, measurable evidence my efforts changed anything. I have kind words, some thoughtful emails, and a few, very few, dollars in our bank account. Does that matter? It shouldn’t, but we live in a culture driven by quantity, size and extent. My ego was born and raised in this milieu and often demands to be heard…and soothed!

In moments when my ego feels slighted by the meagerness of quantifiable outcomes, I recall ancient wisdom from the Bhagavad Gita: Do your work and let go of results. When we find the place to which God calls us, why can’t that be enough? Why is it important to quantify the world’s great hunger and measure how much I might have lessened it? And, if we only follow paths hewn by quantity, size and extent, do we risk reaching the end of our journey never having unlocked our deep gladness?

So how do we find our deep gladness? First, we need to quiet an ego that demands traditional measures of success. Once relieved of the burden of outcomes, the journey will often lead us to unexpected destinations.

We discover our capacities—our unique magnificence—when we venture into the world and allow it to tell us what makes us unique. Let the world rough you up. Let it break your heart. It will. It will make you cry. But that is how life is meant to be. The human journey is not easy. But when our hearts break, we learn more generosity, kindness, empathy and love. And when we do, the world holds up a mirror to tell us who we are and what we are capable of becoming. In those moments we are given a glimpse into our deep gladness.

Only after we discover a self of extraordinary integrity and authenticity—our deep gladness—can our actions emerge from the fullness of our being and meet the world’s deep hunger. When we discover the magnificence of our life and live it into the world, we literally reweave the fabric of the Universe…and the results will take care of themselves.

Sep 282017
 

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.

Sep 182017
 

“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.”
                                                Parker Palmer

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.

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.

Nov 162016
 

On a recent Operation Snowball retreat, I was deeply moved by a wise, kind and generous young man struggling to find himself within a difficult and heartbreaking life. When he and I spoke, I talked of the need for him, as he became an adult, to redefine his relationship with his parents. That conversation reminded me of a piece I wrote many years ago as our son left for college.

“What’s happen’n here is a long goodbye.”  

Country artists Brooks & Dunn

Why, I have been wondering, is saying goodbye sometimes so very difficult.

We recently took our son to college to begin his freshman year. 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 encounter in the future will be a different person. He will always be the son I love, but he will be my son in a different way—increasingly he will be his own person. What’s confusing is that my sorrow does not erupt from a desire to have him remain the boy I have known. Quite the contrary, I am in awe of the thoughtful, responsible, creative, enthusiastic young man he is becoming.

So if my deep sadness does not come from saying goodbye to the young boy as he becomes a man, then from where does it emanate?

What I am coming to realize is that there is a second person to whom I must bid farewell—a person far more difficult to leave behind. I must, I discover, say goodbye to the father I knew myself to be. I’ll always be available when he needs me, but the simple truth is that he needs me less. I am less important—or maybe important in a different way—now that he is beginning to make his own way in the world.

And while I can love, and be inspired by, the young man we are welcoming into the family, I am less comfortable with, or confident in my ability to welcome, the father who must show up. I can no longer treat my son as if he were merely revision 1.01 of the boy who left us. But how do I stop myself from offering the unsolicited advice that seemed so necessary when he was younger? How do I give up the fear that if I don’t watch over him—if I don’t co-manage his life—that the suffering he will inevitably face will not destroy him? Where will I find the strength to know that he really does 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.