Jun 042020
 

Changing the world, it is said, is an inside job.

I’ve used this tale before, but it bears repeating. A couple whose son suffers from horrible bouts of anger and fear take him to a Buddhist monk. “Would you,” they ask, “help rid our son of his demons?” The monk pauses and says, “bring your son back in one year.”

A year later the couple returns with their son and the monk begins the lessons. Grateful, but confused, the couple asks why the teaching had to wait a year. “Ah,” the monk replies, “I had first to learn how to rid myself of anger and fear.”

There is arduous work ahead to tear down the insidious walls of institutional racism…to claw at its massive foundations. I am committed to doing what I can to aid that effort, but, in the end, I cannot help anyone rid themselves of racism until I first learn how of rend it completely from my own life.

How could I not have racism written on my soul having been thoroughly immersed in the white neighborhoods and schools of my youth. How could I learn the harsh reality of racial inequality when my grade school had no one of color, and my high school graduating class had just a few? How could my biases not have been further obscured having been a member of my college’s student senate without people of color at the table? How can I live in my community where faces of color are few and far between, and not see racial inequality? Why has it taken to my elder years for me to fully grasp the depth and breadth of white privilege that paves the paths before me…and impedes them for those of color?

In fact, each of these lessons, and hundreds of others, have been critical courses in the curriculum of my life. I have just been too naïve and selfish to enroll.

After reading, among others, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Just Mercy by Bryon Stevenson, Antiracism by Ibram X Kendi, Tears We Cannot Stop by Michael Eric Dyson, it becomes impossible to look in a mirror and remain oblivious to the biases that run so very deep.

Many years ago, I created a symbol as a reminder…a simple piece of cardboard holding two U.S. dimes. On the back it says:

Changing the World is an Inside Job
To change the world, you must shatter paradigms.
Begin with your own!

Should you see me sometime soon, I will try to have one for you as well.

These are difficult and often frightening times. But, for me, they are most difficult because I am being forced to acknowledge the demons inside. Even though I married a woman of a different race, I am aware I still harbor prejudice and racism. I must admit, and come to terms with, those biased, often repugnant views. It is only by tearing down those walls and clawing at those foundations that there will be any real hope for the future.

May 042020
 

What if the answer was deeper, less objective and more nuanced than a simple recounting of the number of times the earth orbited the sun since the day you arrived?

If I asked, instead, how creative you are, I would be confused and disheartened if you answered “5,” “23,” or “99.” Those are meaningless in the context of creativity. I would appreciate hearing that you love to write poetry or music. It would tell me a great deal to hear that your passions are theater and improv.  I could look more deeply into your soul if you say, “While I am not terribly accomplished, I take great pride in some of the pencil sketches I have attempted.” I was touched recently by a caller who told me she loves to write music, especially pieces that erupt from her deep sorrow and invite others to listen deeply to their own with less judgement.

Similarly, if I asked about your generosity, your capacity for love, and the extent to which you are trustworthy and honest, what would you tell me? Should I ask of your wisdom, I would gain insight even if you were to express doubts about the depth and breadth of yours.

With one exception, there is no upper limit on the qualities that define our character. Our admiration for another is in direct proportion to the extent of their creativity, generosity, love, trustworthiness, honesty, and wisdom.

The one exception, or course, is our culture’s, oft unspoken, acceptable upper limit on the number of years we have lived. There is no remark about creativity, generosity, love or wisdom equivalent to being “over the hill” regarding age.

What would it mean if the answer to how old you are was similarly nuanced? What if, instead, how old you are is defined by the character you cultivated during the years you have lived? To which, of course, there is no limit.

What if, instead of telling me your age, you were willing to admit you are old enough to know the limits of your knowledge; that you are coming to understand the power of questions and are less compelled by the veracity of opinions—yours and others. To what extent would you be willing to share you are old enough to focus more on what is left for you to be, and less about what is left for you to do?

I would love to hear you have learned the power of compassion and how you might use yours to ease the journey of others; that you are discovering, when you are with another during a time of deep sadness and grief, it is not within your power to fix, but absolutely within your power to be fully present—and that that is enough. Might you also admit you have less fear about your legacy and are taking comfort in knowing that such a thing is unknowable.

Should we meet sometime soon, and I ask how old you are, know that I do not care a whit about the years you have lived. What I care to discern is the extent to which you have fully lived during your many revolutions of the planet Earth, and developed character worthy of the time you have been given.

Apr 262020
 

The increasingly pervasive, oft vicious exchanges that permeate our lives, whether they be in person, in the media, or on social media, can easily overwhelm. Those, on top of trying to survive a global pandemic, make daily life ever more challenging.

The human brain is a marvelous, complex and adaptive organ that enables us to observe the world through our five senses and use those inputs to create a story of the world and how it works. We use those stories to guide us as we navigate our lives. But what happens if the stories, and our interpretations, are wrong or misguided? How often do we navigate poorly?

I often misinterpret the world and find myself navigating poorly. When I do, I am thankful to discover a beacon that helps me find my way. I am captivated whenever I am presented with a story, viewpoint, or interpretation that call some belief into question and I find myself exclaiming, “If that’s true…it changes everything!”

As examples of how we often create stories that can derail our lives, I present Kanizsa’s Triangle and The Sierpinski Triangle.

Kanizsa’s Triangle (Figure 1), drawn by Gaetano Kanizsa in the 1950s, arranges six independent green shapes to make your brain believe there are two triangles where there are none. Hundreds of times each day we take disparate pieces of sensory information and turn fragments into stories that are often misinformed, or totally untrue. We make political decisions based on sound bites. We treat people differently based on first impressions. We react to loved ones based on incomplete understanding.

The Sierpinski triangle (Figure 2) can be generated by starting at the red dot in Figure 3 and following two rules: pick one of the numbered dots at random, and, move from where you are halfway to that point to make an additional dot. If you do that thousands of times, you will always get the Sierpinski Triangle…always! That is astounding and terrifying.

It is astounding that two simple rules can create such complexity and beauty. It is terrifying because, if we follow those rules, we will remain in that pattern for all of eternity. How often do we find ourselves, often unconsciously, following rules in our lives and businesses? Those rules add beauty and complexity for a while, but we seldom want to remain in those patterns for all of eternity. How many of us, because of “shelter in place” during the COVID-19 pandemic, had to change normal “rules,” and how many of us will admit we found at least some of the new patterns refreshing?

The philosopher, Paul-Michel Foucault wrote, “The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning.” If today is the beginning, what will each of us do tomorrow to become someone we are not today? What might I allow myself to discover that requires me to cry, “If that’s true…it changes everything?”

Apr 022020
 

The woman on the other end of the call tried desperately to speak through anxiety and a torrent of tears. “Take a deep breath.” I said, “I want to understand what you are facing.”

“I’m overwhelmed. I’m confused. My life is falling apart. I tried to call my therapist, but her mailbox is full, so I can’t even leave a message. I don’t know what to do.” The tears and anxiety returned.

“Why are you feeling so overwhelmed?” I asked. Trying to hold back tears, she replied, “This virus has turned my world upside down. I have two young children and I have to be everything: mom, teacher, cook, housekeeper. I’m drowning. I try to do it all, but I can’t. I feel like a total failure. There isn’t even any time during the day to care for myself.”

I continued, “First, I am in awe of your herculean efforts to try to do everything.” “Thank you,” she replied, “That’s really nice to hear.”

 “In addition to attempting everything, are you expecting perfection?” I asked, suspecting the answer. “Of course. I take pride in doing things well, and right now, I’m failing at everything,” she said through a renewed wave of tears. “So, in addition to not checking everything off your list, you’re piling on guilt for not being perfect.” “Yes,” she responded quietly.

 “Can we agree that these are extraordinary times, and that nothing is what it was a few weeks ago? These times demand that each of us discover new ways to be in the world. What would it take for you to accept you can no longer be perfect in everything, and be gentle with yourself for the imperfections?” She said it would be difficult.

“I understand, but here’s a thought. It’s the end of March. What would happen if you picked a date, say June 1, and decided to quarantine your judgements and guilt until then? What if, for the next two months, you decided, since life is crazy, imperfection is what is needed. You can go back to being perfect after June 1, if you so choose. But for now, can it be okay to be imperfect? If there are dishes in the sink, it’s fine…clothes to be washed, oh well…beds aren’t made, so be it…every school assignment isn’t finished, pick it up again tomorrow. Could you quarantine the judgements for 60 days and be kind and gentle with yourself?” After a short pause, she said “I think I could, but it would be hard.” I reminded her everything is difficult right now.

I asked, of all the things not getting done, what hurts the most. “With all the other things I feel I have to do, I’m forgetting to be Mom. My children need that more than anything and it’s last on the list.” “So,” I pressed, “if you let other things be imperfect, do you think you might find time each day to play with your children? Just have fun?” In a truly joyful voice, she said it sounded wonderful.

In the end, she told me she marked June 1 on her calendar and was putting everything aside that afternoon to spend time being the Mom her children need. Then she said, “Can it be okay to be imperfect in other things so I can be a good Mom? Absolutely!” Suddenly, it was me in tears.

Feb 032020
 

I am fascinated how often people battered by life, acknowledge that, despite the harshness of the journey, it bore gifts they hope never to relinquish.

I was diagnosed with prostate cancer a few years ago, but it’s severity, and need to deal with it, only became clear in early 2019. In the months since the cancer’s gravity was confirmed, I too, will admit to many gifts born from the ensuing journey. I feel as though I won the lottery, not by beating cancer, but by having been given it.

In traditional lottery terms, I have a sense I beat the odds. My cancer was first discovered through a biopsy several years ago, but it was not considered life-threatening. Anyone familiar with prostate cancer knows many types progress slowly, so “watch and wait” is an appropriate path forward. However, a second biopsy in early 2019 confirmed the cancer had become more acute requiring some more-proactive protocol. How did I beat the odds? After surgery, the pathology report exposed cancer in only 0.1% of my prostate. The odds of finding it in one biopsy is 1 in 125. The odds of finding it in two, is 1 in 15,625. Had my urologist missed it, I would still be “watching and waiting” as the disease increasingly threatened my life.

But my deepest joys erupt, not from mathematical odds, but from the human voyage on which I embarked.

There are several protocols to deal with the cancer I confronted. My urologist in Geneva, when the cancer was first discovered, recommended I get a second opinion from Dr. Edward Schaeffer, Head of Urology at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago. Putting ego aside, he said “Schaeffer is the guy in this field. As far as I am concerned, whatever he says goes.” The first time I met Dr. Schaeffer, he extended his hand and said, “Hello, I’m Ted.” This world-class physician put formality aside, identified himself with his nickname rather than title, and provided his cell phone number! He made it clear I was to call him directly should any questions arise. Ted Schaeffer put me at ease from the first moment we met. Throughout the journey, he called personally to discuss each development and its implications.

One option, which, in the end I rejected, was radiation. Nonetheless, Dr. Schaeffer, a surgeon, encouraged me to fully explore those alternatives. I met with a radiologist at the Northwestern Proton Center in Warrenville who spent an hour going over every aspect of radiation, exactly what would happen, how they would protect the other vital organs, and even the ramifications, including potential long-term collateral damage. I was astounded by the depth and breadth of his explanations, as well as his authenticity and genuine concern.

I feel blessed by the humanity and humility of each of these physicians. Each, a lottery ticket pulled in my favor.

A week before my surgery, one final “procedure” came to mind that made the journey even more joyful. As I walked one morning along the Fox River, I was leveled by the realization no one’s future is guaranteed the moment major surgery commences. I was suddenly terrified that, should something untoward happen, those closest to me might never know the depth of my love. Over the next few days I wrote twelve letters—one to my wife, to each of my children, my mother, my four siblings and their spouses. It was during this excursion I realized how I had won life’s lottery in an astonishing way. Every letter wrote itself. I was able to tell each person of my love and respect, and of the joy, laughter, and deep meaning they each bring to my life.

In the lottery of life, I have been reminded yet again, I am one of the luckiest, and wealthiest, people I know.

Roger Breisch

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.

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.

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.

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.

Dec 072018
 

There are Universes in our midst, but assumptions can prevent us from experiencing their extraordinary wisdom, beauty, and elegance.

What number would you multiply by itself to arrive at -1? Early mathematicians assumed such a number was useless. They referred to it in a derogatory way as imaginary.

A visual depiction of the Mandelbrot Set

In the 18th century, mathematicians relinquished that assumption and began to give structure and meaning to imaginary numbers. They used the letter “i ” to denote the square root of -1. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that “super computers” enabled Benoit Mandelbrot to peer into a yet undiscovered universe. Named for him, the Mandelbrot Set is one of the most famous images in all of Mathematics. You can expand the Mandelbrot Set billions of times and elemental structures emerge again and again. (Play the short video at https://youtu.be/9G6uO7ZHtK8, listen to the music and imagine yourself peering into eternity.) We are blind to this breathtaking universe until we surrender the assumption that the square root of -1 is meaningless.

At the time Benoit Mandelbrot was peering into infinity, I was teaching Mathematics at a private boarding school near Princeton, New Jersey. I lived in the dorm and was advisor to several freshmen.

One Spring evening, David, one of my advisees, came to my apartment looking sad and frightened. He was about to complete French 1 with an elderly, kindly member of the faculty…one whose demands were minimal. That afternoon, David discovered he would be learning French 2 from an excellent, very demanding teacher. “Mr. Breisch,” he whispered in tears, “you have to let me out of her class. I’m not prepared. I’ll fail!” My heart broke, but since David was one of my (favorite) algebra students, I knew him to be diligent, intelligent and determined. I was certain he would succeed. In one of the most heart-wrenching moments of my time as a teacher, I looked him in the eye, told him of my confidence and that I would not let him shy away from this challenge. I sent him back to his room alone and in tears. The following year, after each French test, David returned to my apartment and we would, together, celebrate his success.

I have lost track of David, but my hope is that, by surrendering assumptions about his inability, he began to peer into a breathtaking personal universe that was, until that moment, inaccessible to him.

Not long ago, I spoke with a young woman suffering from lupus, a disease that could end her life. Her mother, she told me, constantly lamented the myriad experiences her daughter would never enjoy—everything from a glass of wine to having children. The young woman explained that, while she sometimes finds the disease difficult, she had a deep appreciation for the life that resulted from it. She tried to find words that would enable her mother to witness the wholeness of her life rather than its perceived brokenness. One day, when her Mother once again began to focus on all her daughter would miss, this young woman turned to her and said, “Mom, what you refuse to see is all you have missed by not having lupus!”

It was a stunning moment. I felt as though this woman had given me new eyes. My old eyes, when in the presence of a person who may lack abilities, were blinded by assumptions of what they were missing in their lives. The eyes she gifted me, by surrendering those assumptions, began to see worlds that were always there, but to which I was blind—Universes in which others are not lacking in abilities; they are given capabilities, capacities and wisdom I can never have. By peering through their eyes, hearts and souls, I can experience wisdom, beauty, and elegance in Universes in which it is I who is less-than-able in very profound ways.

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