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.

Dec 052019
 

At first, it ended tragically.

At a recent Operation Snowball* retreat, the teens wrote a skit entitled “Asking for Help.” In the first performance, one of the teens was struggling mightily with challenges life mercilessly hurled in her path. Despite her overwhelming heartbreak and pain, she never asked for help. Those around her, even if they noticed, did little in response to her subtle cries for love and support. Alone and confused, without the comfort of family and friends, her life ended in tragedy.

I was asked to facilitate the ensuing discussion, so I rose and asked the eighty or so teens what went wrong. “What would you have done differently?” I inquired. They knew she needed help and were saddened that those around her let her down. The failure brought some in the room to tears.

We talked about the many ways we can pick up on a cry for help. Obviously, when friends tell us they are in trouble, it’s easy. But often, cries are silent and subtle. “If we see unexpected changes in mood, it would be important to reach out,” one teen suggested. Another counseled “If a friend’s habits change unexpectedly, it is never a mistake to ask if they are okay.” I reminded them, even if we see a stranger who appears to be sad, we can always offer assistance or just a smile. “Remember, when someone needs support, you are not responsible to solve their problems. You only have to help get them to someone who can.”

The actors replayed the final moments of the skit. But this time, the struggling teen’s friends picked up on her sadness and anxiety and insisted she come with them to get help. That version was truly lifesaving.

As we discussed the second performance, we agreed it is difficult to ask for help, especially for teens. We recounted many reasons. “I’m the strong one. If my friends and family find out I am struggling…they’d be disappointed.” “My father is out of work and we have no insurance.” “I don’t want to be a burden on others.” “My parents are under a lot of stress because my uncle is dying from cancer.” “My sister is already in counseling. I can’t tell my parents I need it too.” “My mother is a single parent. She is stressed enough already.” The list is endless.

But then, one teen spoke up. “I think many people, especially teens, don’t ask for help because they don’t think they deserve it.” That nearly brought me to my knees.

An hour before the session began, as I reflected on the upcoming events, I recalled a conversation with a friend 25 years earlier. He asked if I believed in fairness. The question was startling, nevertheless, I assured him I did. “If you were at a dinner and the dessert tray had only two pieces of the pie you wanted, and one was clearly larger that the other, which would you take?” Since the question didn’t require deep contemplation. I told him I’d likely take the smaller one. “Always?” he pressed. This time I thought, but only for a moment. “Yes, probably.” “Ah,” he shot back, “then you really don’t believe in fairness, do you?”

I repeated that ancient exchange to the students and adults in front of me. I then recounted the many reasons we don’t ask for help. Is it possible, I asked, that, when life is dispensing love and support, we’re too willing to give others the larger slice? “It’s unreasonable,” I acknowledged, “to always be first in line, but, if we continually put ourselves last, perhaps we really don’t believe in fairness.”

We tell ourselves it is better to give than to receive. I believe that. But, if we believe in offering love, kindness, and generosity to all humans, then doesn’t the person we see every morning in the mirror, deserve to receive an equal share from us as well?

*Operation Snowball is a teen leadership program for which I am an adult volunteer.

Mar 232019
 

When grace enters my life unexpectedly, the moment often becomes a font of knowledge and wisdom.

Operation Snowball is an organization for high school students who want to live healthy lives by keeping an informed and respectable distance between themselves and drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. Twice each year a three-day retreat is convened for a hundred or more participants. I recently had the privilege of participating in my 26th such weekend.

The keynote speaker Friday afternoon was newly elected Kane County Sheriff Ron Hain. I have heard the Sheriff speak and I am inspired by his leading-edge ideas and philosophies related to law enforcement. On that day, however, I had no expectation of inspiration, just thoughts about teens, drugs and alcohol.

However, Sheriff Hain prefaced his remarks by retelling his journey from a young boy of twelve to Sheriff of Kane County. You see, and he admitted it was the first time he told this story in a very public venue, when he was 12, his father walked out on him and his mother. In that moment, as they cried, he realized the imminent choice that would chart the course of his life. He could, he told us, be destroyed by the abandonment, or use it as a lever to propel him forward toward a life of meaning. Thankfully for all of us, he chose the latter. From that moment forward, every significant decision he faced became another chance to prove, to himself and the world, he would use his time on this planet to make a difference.

Sheriff Hain did speak of drugs, alcohol, and law enforcement, and, following his remarks, there were many questions from the teens about a life in criminal justice. But the questions that most caused the Sheriff to pause, were those about what it meant for his father to abandon him and his mother.

I have long thought about the pain in our lives and who we might become with or without it. With this unique opportunity right in our midst, I raised my hand and asked, “Sheriff, if you could, would you go back to that moment when you were 12 and re-write history? Would you write a story in which your father remained in your life?” He paused for a long moment, then he looked at the 100 of us in the room and admitted that that moment made him who he became. He then said, “As strange as it may seem, that event was a gift in my life, and I would not go back and change it.”

I think many in the room were stunned by that revelation, but I was overcome with joy. Not joy over his father’s departure, but joy for the gift the Sheriff had just bestowed. Over the past 13 years in Snowball, I have heard hundreds of stories from teens who live through horrendous pain. There were many in the room that Friday afternoon who had lived through moments as painful as the Sheriff; some are living lives even more raw and chaotic. I thanked him for helping us understand that those moments, as horrible and as unfair as they are, can become defining moments in our lives. Those moments can overwhelm us…they can also propel us.

It is a story I have heard thousands of times answering calls on the National Lifeline. Often, after witnessing a human being in inordinate pain, I will ask, “While I would take this suffering away in an instant if I could, I cannot. However, are you learning something about what it means to be human that you can use to help others?” Often, the response is “You have no idea.”

Sheriff Hain, your ideas about law enforcement inspire me, but this past weekend I was moved by your strength and humanity. The gift from your life, became one in ours. I am deeply grateful for you giving us that unexpected moment of grace.

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.

Apr 062017
 

One evening this past February, at Operation Snowball, the teen leadership program for which I volunteer, a young woman approached me about a deep sadness that momentarily infused her life. I spoke with her briefly, but the appropriate words eluded me in that moment. The next morning I sent her the following note.

Gianna,

Let me begin by telling you how touched I was you would reach out to me last night. I feel blessed by your invitation. At the same time, it feels as though, in the moment, I was unclear and inarticulate. I have reflected on our time together and would like to share some of those reflections.

The deep sadness you described is indeed difficult. When we are in that place, we wish so much to be free of the pain. I have spent hundreds of hours on the suicide hotline with people who are trying to escape the gulf they feel in their lives. In those moments I will often ask, “Is there something you are learning from this pain that helps you better understand the human journey?” The typical response is “You have no idea!” When our hearts break, the holiness of the human journey enters it in a new way and our hearts grow. In those moments, we become more able to help others on their journey.

It is sometimes helpful to think of all the emotions that populate our lives—sadness, joy, anger, fear, etc.—as passing clouds. They come into our purview, and whether we want them to stay or not, they pass away. It is the definition of being human. The journey is to notice them and see what they have to teach us about being human. If we view them as teachers, we can also see each and every one as gifts. We can be thankful for them…and not grow attached to them. They will go…and one day return to teach us yet again.

Gianna, you (and your sister) are amazing gifts in the lives of so many of us. Your joy, your kindness, the love you have for each other, changes each of us for the better. You inform us in your own unique way, about the miracle of the human journey. As long as you continue to grow into the extraordinary young woman you are becoming, and are willing to let your life speak to others, then let the sadness simply evaporate. That cloud, too will pass.

Finally, this morning as I was reflecting on our time together, I was reading The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, a conversation between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Two quotes from that profound volume informed this missive. The first was from a psalm: “Who passing through the vale of tears makes it a well.” When we allow the tears and sadness to break open our hearts and enlarge their capacity, we become a well from which others can gain wisdom and strength.

The second is, “And so I would say to everyone: You are made for perfection, but you are not yet perfect. You are a masterpiece in the making.”

When I looked deeply into the eyes of the extraordinary young woman in front of me last night, it became clear to me that you are a masterpiece in the making. I am blessed by you in my life.

Hugs,

Roger

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.

Apr 042016
 

There is a Buddhist tale about parents who asked a local monk to teach their child to live free of anger and hatred. “Of course,” replied the monk. “Bring your child back in two years.” Two years later they returned and instruction commenced. Confused, they asked why the teachings had to wait. “Because,” the monk replied, “First, I had to learn to live free of anger and hatred.”

At Operation Snowball, the teen program for which I volunteer, we use the acronym IALAC: I Am Lovable And Capable. About a month before our Spring retreat the Teen Directors asked me to speak about IALAC for the 130 or more teens who would attend. The moment they asked, I recalled the Buddhist story and my heart skipped a beat. “I must first come to believe I am lovable,” I thought “and I don’t have two years to discern the truth.”

Everyone has moments in which the reflection they witness in the mirror of life is of a person they find difficult to love. I recall many failures as a parent, when ego and insecurity prevented me from being the kind, gentle and wise guide I hoped to be for my children; failures as a husband, when attending to my agenda left my wife feeling abandoned and lonely; failures in my career, where I anticipated becoming a captain of industry…forty years later my resume is a train-wreck by most traditional measures.

Father, Husband, Provider. If these roles define a man’s life, and you feel you have failed, it can be challenging to look in the mirror and perceive a person who is lovable.

As the weeks slipped by, I struggled to find the lens through which I could see myself as unconditionally lovable. And because teens are still apprentices at life, their mistakes, hurts and scars can seem crushingly painful, and leave them feeling hopelessly unloved and unlovable. If I struggle to see myself as unconditionally lovable, how could I provide them a lens of lovability through which they could perceive themselves?

At some moment the path opened. The teens themselves are, and have been for ten years, the lens through which I can see myself as lovable. I have hundreds of handwritten notes—words that leave me humbled and in tears—in which teens have held up unblemished mirrors to help me see what they see. Their view can be a more genuine reflection than mine because, in my mirror, the brutal voice of failure vies for dominance over the quiet, often shy and cautious voice that knows I am lovable.

So when the time came to speak, after I described the critical self-reflection to which I am often witness, I asked, by show of hands, how many have seen something in me that is lovable. The response, in all humility, brought me to my knees. “What if,” I suggested, “I step out of my body, leave Roger here in front, and come sit amongst you.” I made a gesture of stepping out of my own body, and I sat down in their midst.

As I sat, surrounded by these loving young truth-tellers, looking up at the virtual person I left standing before us, it became easier to see a man who—in spite of his failures, missteps and scars—cares deeply and tries mightily. Suddenly I was able to glimpse a man who is lovable.

So I returned to the question that began our time together: Are we, each of us, lovable and capable of love? “Of that,” I said “there is no doubt. From the moment you were conceived, in every moment since, and in each moment into the future, you are infinitely lovable and capable of love.” “It is,” I continued, “fundamentally the wrong question. The real question is, ‘Are you willing to find the courage to listen and believe?’”

When life leaves us questioning our worth—leaves us feeling hopeless—it is helpful to find a truth-teller…someone who loves us and will recount honestly what they see in us. All that remains is to look, with an open heart, into the reflection they so generously offer, silence the voice of denial, and summon the courage to listen and believe.

Nov 132015
 

Last Sunday morning I unexpectedly found myself in the embrace of an African American teen who was crying uncontrollably. His deep emotional response was too much for me to remain untouched; my tears soon followed. After several minutes, he released his grip, looked me in the eye and said “Thank you so much.” I felt blessed by the encounter.

How can an aging white male and a young black man find such an intimate moment of meeting? It blossomed from our shared humanity, and a profound need in our culture.

The final event on every Snowball weekend is a hug circle. We wind the nearly 120 teens and 20 or more adults in a snake-like pattern that enables each of us to face and hug every other participant. I began and ended the circle with a young man I had seen on the event, but had not met. I had no idea how dramatically that was about to change.

As he and I finished, some in the room had yet to hug everyone, so we had a moment to chat. Never wanting to waste an opportunity to peer into another, I asked what he learned about himself during the previous forty eight hours. “I learned I cry very easily,” he said. It can be difficult for a male in this culture to admit they are not always in control of their emotions. Young men are ridiculed or bullied for cultural infractions far less serious.

I thanked him and expressed my belief that men need to learn how to be more in touch with their emotions, and publicly vulnerable. “After all my years in Snowball, if there is one thing teens respect…appreciate… perhaps even love me for, it is my willingness to be open and emotionally exposed…often in tears” I pointed to his heart and said “Your tears—modeling vulnerability—may be your greatest gift.” It was those words that caught him. Tears welled up and our extended embrace began.

Had you told me before I began my foray into Operation Snowball ten years ago I would one day find words to draw tears from a young man in this way, I would likely have found it difficult to believe. But I have since learned I have some facility to look deeply into the hearts of teens and hold up a mirror to help them see the beauty I see.

Whenever I am gifted by such moments, worlds shift—both mine and the teen’s—and I feel graced by the encounter. And I am reminded we never learn all there is to be learned about who we are, and the blessings that lie ahead.

Dec 182014
 

Note: The following will be published in the January issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

His smile is huge and welcoming, and he has a personality to match. He admitted he is uncomfortable with hugs and tears, but on an Operation Snowball weekend, taking off the masks we wear to protect ourselves, and being vulnerable, is an invaluable part of the experience.

In spite of the tough veneer, there was a moment the façade unexpectedly slipped. As he spoke innocently of his family, he began to tell us of his birth-father—his parents had divorced many years earlier. “My Dad is my hero,” he began innocently enough, but as he continued his eyes welled up and he tried desperately to hold back the tears. “As a young man, he was in a gang—it’s part of the reason he and my mother split. But, about the time I was born, he straightened out his life. He works harder than anyone I know. I love him so much.” With that, he wiped the tears that made their way down his face.

“Have you ever told him what you just told us?” I asked. “I’ve tried,” he said. “It’s really hard, but sometimes as I’m leaving, I’ll turn and tell him I love him.” “No,” I pressed, “Have you ever looked him square in the eye and said ‘Dad, you are my hero. I love you more than I can even say.’” He stared at the floor and admitted he had not.

Why, when we see magnificence in another, especially one we love, do we frequently find it difficult to acknowledge? Perhaps it’s because a moment of affirmation requires vulnerability from both giver and receiver. When I am honored by another, it can trigger memories of the frailties I often believe define me. I can become embarrassed and confused in the face of sincere, caring affirmation and deflect the recognition…and in my inelegance, embarrass the person who only wants me to see something wonderful within.

What if, in an unexpectedly touching moment with his son, a formerly tough gang member, in confusion and embarrassment, blurted, “Don’t be silly, I’m not that great!” All the son might hear from the man he adores is the crushing implication he is silly.

Later that weekend, I sought out that young man. “At the risk of pushing too hard and being a pain in your backside, may I tell you a story?” “Sure,” he said with a curious smile.

“My daughter invited me to join her on a Snowball weekend when she was a sophomore in high school. Snowball changed my life and I am grateful beyond measure. At her last event as a senior, I pulled her aside one last time to tell her how thankful I was she invited me on this journey we shared. She looked me in the eye and said ‘Dad, I truly believe the reason I got involved was to bring you here. You are my gift to Snowball.’ I was stunned.”

“That was more than six years ago,” I continued, “yet, I remember that moment as if it was yesterday. I will take those words with me to my grave. If you tell your father how much you love and admire him, don’t be deterred if his initial reaction is tainted by confusion and embarrassment. In the end, I am certain he will, as well, carry your words with him until the day he dies.”

At the end of the weekend, that “tough” young man left a note for me in which he said I was the sweetest man on Earth and that he loved me. And now, despite my own embarrassment, tears are having their way with me.

I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions, but I believe in always committing myself to more wholehearted living. So, as I move into the year 2015, I will try diligently to speak to those I love of the joy I find in their presence in my life, and try even more diligently, when told of their joy at my presence in their life, to acknowledge their affirmation with grace, gratitude and humility.

Aug 072013
 

The following will appear in the September/October edition of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

The truth of who we are is betwixt and between…and we need courage to find it.
The St. Charles middle schools recently hosted an Operation Snowflake event. Like Operation Snowball, which is for high school students, Snowflake is for 6th, 7th and 8th graders and is intended to be a place where students can be with peers who want to live a healthy lifestyle. I was asked to be the “motivational speaker” speaker that afternoon.
I thought long and hard about the message I wanted to impart; I wrote and rewrote my remarks many times. The night before the event, a teen at Operation Snowball spoke of the debilitating bullying to which he had been subjected during his years in middle school. I was so taken by his remarks, I found it difficult to sleep and awoke early the next morning and reworked my remarks one last time.
Either bullying was not the cultural tsunami it is today, or I was simply fortunate to have escaped its devastation…at least from other teens in my life. Yet I recall 7th and 8th grades as two of the loneliest years of my life. Episodes that seem trivial today, 50 years ago as an insecure and fragile human being, seemed large and unrelenting…their consequences insurmountable.
I remember a Jungian psychologist who suggested that, throughout the early years of life, we get messages from parents, family and friends about who we need to be in order to be loved or even lovable. What we must eventually discern, if we ever hope to liberate ourselves from the assault, is that few, if any, of those people know who we are at the core of our being. What makes those years terrifying and lonely is that we fall short in our attempt to be who others demand we become. Since we are someone else, it is easy to wedge a knife into the gap and twist it in such a way the pain becomes excruciating.
So that afternoon I touched on bullying. We agreed that bullying is—whether physically, mentally or emotionally—to make someone feel badly about who they are in the world. When I shared how the teen who became the man who pens these words, seldom had kind words for himself, I asked if they thought I was bullied…and who the most hurtful perpetrator was. Many realized I was, in fact, the most unforgiving bully I had to face every day.
My maternal grandmother was a woman I adored; she loved me greatly. If only I had the wisdom and courage, in moments of despair, to seek her counsel. “What I see of my life, and what I see of me, often leaves me sad and lonely. Would you be willing to tell me what you see?” She would have had amazing words of encouragement and affirmation.
And so, my final admonition for the young people of Snowflake was, in the moments when life seems unrelenting and insurmountable, find an elder who loves you and will walk with you into the truth as they see it. Tell them of your angst, fear and loneliness and ask what they see. That can be very difficult—I never had the courage to try. But the far more arduous task is to believe what they tell you. Trusting another to help us express who we are is one of the most courageous things we can attempt.
Trying to get 6th, 7th and 8th graders to sit still long enough hear my message just may be the second most courageous thing I have ever attempted. I left Operation Snowflake feeling as though I was unable to connect with those young people in the way I had hoped. And yes, many subsequent moments have been consumed beating myself up over the perceived failure. Fortunately, other adults who were in the room have said very kind things about my attempt.
Since we are often unable to see our gifts, we must look to others in the community to help us discern them. The truth of who we are in the world is betwixt and between our self-deprecation and others’ generosity. We just need the courage, when we are betwixt and between, to listen more attentively to the generous, loving words available to us. I wish now I had had the courage to ask my grandmother what she saw.