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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Jul 302018
 

One Christmas afternoon many years ago, I answered a call on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) from a young man in middle school. Through oceans of tears he told me how he and his father argued almost constantly. All he wanted to know was whether his father loved him. It broke my heart. We talked a long time that afternoon until he felt he had a way to talk with his father. One of the last things he told me before the call ended was “I know I don’t know you well, but I can tell you I love you.” One of the most perfect gifts I have ever received on that day.

Having spent nearly 3500 hours answering calls on the Lifeline, I have found that helping those who suffer is some of the most life-affirming work any person can be invited to do. On the other side of suffering is a profundity of joy and wisdom unavailable to us without the journey into the depths.

But to truly affirm life, we must affirm all of life…including suffering. We are bereft of wisdom, empathy and love when we go to great lengths to eliminate or hide suffering; we do everything we can to avoid the journey that eventually leads to an understanding of the true nature of the human journey.

When we hide suffering, we concentrate it in hidden worlds. We send the elderly to retirement and nursing communities; the infirmed and disabled are sent to homes. Depression and mental illness are closeted behind the closed doors of professionals. And while these places are caring and wonderful, those outside forget the suffering behind those doors. By concentrating the anguish into those places of caring, those left to attend to the suffering are overwhelmed by the enormity of what we ask of them.

When suffering is hidden, we are left believing it is not normal for humans to suffer. Those who suffer cry in silence, believing it is their unique frailty or weakness that leaves them in pain. We think, “Since others around me are doing well, it’s just be me who is weak and unable to cope with life.” We miss suffering’s doorway into understanding and sagacity.

I wonder how we might change the world if every person were to find even small ways to allow human suffering to reinfuse our lives. What if we began with the courage to let the world see our own vulnerabilities; bring the reality of the human journey back into our lives and communities. What if each of us spent time in places where we have gathered great suffering and gave a moment of respite to the caregivers who are becoming overwhelmed?

Perhaps, in many of those moments, we will each receive gifts of gratitude and wisdom beyond any we have yet known.

Dec 052017
 

How should we understand human suffering?

I received a call from a young man who began the conversation by declaring “I have a gun in my lap and when we finish talking, I intend to use it.” This young man’s life, and sense of self, were defined by exploitation. He had been abused in every way imaginable, and the assaults came at him from all directions. Now, in his early 20s, he felt used and useless…his life had no apparent value. There was nothing left to do but end the anguish.

After we talked for some time, and I began to understand the depth of his desperation and hopelessness, I asked if I could share a story from the Hasidic tradition. He accepted the invitation.

As the story is told, a disciple asked his Rebbe, “Why does the Torah tell us to write the holy words on our hearts, why doesn’t it tell us to write them in our hearts?” The Rebbe replied, “That’s because, as we are, our hearts are closed, so we write them on our hearts and there they stay…until one day our heart breaks and the holy words fall in.”

After recounting that tale, I told the young caller how I wished I could take away his unfathomable pain, but I was helpless to dull even the sharpest of its edges. Knowing his heart had been shattered hundreds of times, I asked if he learned anything about the human journey that would enable him to help others. “Have there been holy words that have fallen into your heart?”

I was stunned by his reply. He told me story after story of his ability to save the lives of other young men who suffer the kind of abuse he experienced; he truly understood the depth of their searing pain. When he finally grasped his incredible capacity for empathy, and his ability to save others, he put the gun away.

When our hearts break, holy words do, indeed, fall in. We learn something important about the nature of the human journey. In moments of heartache and pain, if we are open to the lessons, we gain in our capacity for kindness, generosity, caring, empathy…and love. Our hearts grow in those moments and we are unexpectedly more human, not less. We are broken open, not broken. I have been the beneficiary of the profound wisdom that emanates from human suffering hundreds of times on the suicide hotline.

Yet, we live in a culture that wants us to believe suffering can be made optional, or, if not, at least veiled and secreted away. Anything that reminds us of our mortality, recalls the fragility of our lives, is sequestered. We are flooded with images and products that hint at the prospect of everlasting youth…and an end to suffering. When we do suffer, we wear carefully crafted masks behind which we hide, lest others learn of our weaknesses and failures. Those who find themselves in crises are often deserted by friends who are frightened by the prospects of their own mortality.

We know, at some very deep level, much of humanity’s most profound wisdom has come from individual and collective suffering. I am reminded of how Joseph Campbell taught us the value of the heroes’ journey…the descent into Hades, only to reemerge, imbued with greater humanity and wisdom.

Because we are unpracticed at being in the midst of suffering, it takes effort to overcome our fear. But when we do, our hearts, too, will break, the holy words will fall in, and we will learn even greater kindness, generosity, caring, empathy…and love. It is a difficult, yet essential, part of the human journey. Those moments plant within us essential seeds of human wisdom.

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.

Feb 022017
 

“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

I have been deeply moved by the work and words of Bryan Stevenson. His book, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” shattered my view of criminal justice, and informed my understanding of what it means to be human. How many, even if never having to confront the criminal justice system, equate their value—the worth of their lives—with the worst they have done.

I spoke recently with a young man in great anguish. He called from his car, berating himself for having become frustrated in line at a retail store. In his frustration, he made some demeaning remarks to an innocent woman in line behind him. “How could I have been so cruel? It’s not who I want to be, but perhaps I am. I feel so wicked.”

This young man was living a life, the difficulty of which, few could comprehend or appreciate. He had no family—an only child whose parents had passed away—he suffered from his years in the military, and his wife simply could not grasp his pain and confusion.

At one point, I asked, given the choice, would he wish to be a person who erred and was sorry, or one who violates another and simply does not care. “I want to be one who is sorry and tries to do better.” “Then,” I pointed out, “you are being precisely the person you wish to be. You made a human mistake in the midst of your difficult life, and you are sorry. That does not make you wicked or evil. It makes you human.”

“If this happens again,” I pressed, “do you think you will you handle it differently, better?” “Without doubt,” he whispered. “So, as a result of your frail humanity, are you a more kind, generous and caring person than you were even a few moments ago?” “I hadn’t thought about it that way,” he admitted.

We should always be aware when we fail to live up to our personal expectations, and endeavor to do better in the future. “However,” I explained to my new young friend, “there’s a dirty little secret about being human…you will err again. And when you do, remember you are only human. You can, and should be remorseful for your mistakes, but they do not define you. Your striving to do better defines you.”

Bryan Stevenson went on to say, “I’ve represented people who have committed terrible crimes but nonetheless struggle to recover and to find redemption. I have discovered, deep in the hearts of many condemned and incarcerated people, the scattered traces of hope and humanity—seeds of restoration that come to astonishing life when nurtured by very simple interventions.”

We don’t have to commit terrible crimes, to struggle in search of redemption. Anytime we hurt another, or fail to live up to the standards we set for ourselves, we can find ourselves struggling to recover and find redemption. Too often, however, we allow our human frailties to define us, rather than the wisdom, kindness, generosity and caring we gain from our mistakes. We fail, as all humans do, and forget that “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

Each of us is, as well, less than the best we have ever done, but if our view of self is heavily weighted by our lesser moments, we are being violent…and the victim of our ferocity is the person who most needs our understanding, forgiveness and love.

Oct 252016
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sep 012016
 

I’m just trying to save lives, but I’m handcuffed. It breaks my heart, and leaves me feeling set aside.

Youth suicide is epidemic, often the second leading cause of death for those between 15 and 24. No one understands why, and there are many valuable efforts to curb the onslaught. But what we are doing is clearly not enough.

As I have traveled the country, speaking to anyone who will listen, I have begun to focus on the disconnect between our elders—those we always looked upon as our wisdom keepers—and our youth—those I might call apprentices on the human journey. In the skilled trades, apprentices learn from those most experienced; those who have learned their craft through myriad successes and plentiful failure. In life, the masters are those who have deep experience in being human. They have traversed the paths of joy, heartbreak, creation, devastation, love and pain. They know the profound wisdom that comes from living…and only from living.

I recently proposed a gathering of elders and youth for a period of dialogue. My hope was to help our apprentices learn that, in spite of the tremendous pain life can provide, if we travel with others who can help us tease it out, on the other side is joy, wisdom and beauty.

The plan was to bring youth into local retirement communities. The elders are there, and they typically have access to comfortable venues in which to share hopes, fears and dreams.

What I came to discover is that these organizations simply will not allow such meetings to take place. The legal and insurance liabilities are simply too high.

Allowing youth, some of whom may be at risk, into the facility is considered too great a risk should something untoward happen. I get it. I really do. I certainly do not want anyone harmed. But I also believe that real life has risk embedded in it. If we refuse any kind of risk, we leave great wisdom behind.

The second reason is more personal. I have no credentials to facilitate the dialogue. 3000 hours on a suicide hotline and 11 years with teens at Operation Snowball are admirable, but not credible. This too I understand. But it hurts.

I’ll get over it. I will find others ways to combat the epidemic if youth suicide, but for now I am going to honor my broken heart.

Jan 292016
 

Note: The following will appear in the May-June issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

Since leaving my last job, when asked about the next phase of life, I generally reply “I’m seeking my vocation.” As it turns out, my vocation has been in search of me, but I was deaf to its call. Vocations, I have come to understand, can be patient and persistent.

Experiences on the suicide hotline crept into some of my writing, thinking and activities, but I never wanted, nor did I intend, to become “the guy who talks about suicide.” It felt too somber and terrifying. How could talking about suicide, especially teen suicide, bring anything other than grief and sadness?

Then, last summer, a local bank invited me to speak to their more senior account holders. They were interested in several essays from my blog; especially one entitled “A Time I Will Not See.” In it, I wrote how each of us will gain some measure of immortality through the messages our lives leave imprinted on youth. They will carry some of what they witness in us into a future we will not see. In my remarks at the bank, I backed gingerly into the topic of teen depression and suicide.

At the end of those remarks, one elderly gentleman—heavyset, gruff and wearing a baseball cap—pulled me aside. As tears welled up, he told me his grandson had recently ended his own life. Looking forlornly at the floor he continued, “I never saw it coming.” The unspoken words written unequivocally on his face asked “How could a grandfather not see that in his grandson?” When I explained he was not alone, teens often hide their deep sadness, it seemed to alleviate his overwhelming guilt is some small way. When I asked if I could give him a hug, tears returned and we shared a mutual embrace.

I began to speak to more senior communities, but instead of treading softly, I started by revealing that the young people they know and love—grandchildren, great grandchildren, grand nieces and nephews, and others—are at risk. Between the ages of 15 and 25, suicide is often the second leading cause of death. It surprises nearly everyone. I explain the multiple trends and issues that make a young life difficult, and the myriad reasons young people remain cloaked in silence.

In ancestral times, children learned to navigate day-to-day life from their parents, and learned wisdom from their grandparents. Today, we lock away the wisdom of our elders behind the iron gates of retirement communities. As one woman told me, “now that my family is assured I am safe, cared for and comfortable, they don’t come to see me anymore.”

When I speak, my plea to elders—our culture’s wisdom keepers—is that they gently and generously reassert their influence into the lives of young people. “Share your wisdom. Share your stories. Tell of life’s joy and happiness, but also share its difficulties, its heartbreak, and its grief. Let them know that wisdom flows from suffering, and that in its aftermath, life can be, once again, joyful and life-affirming.” When one gentleman admitted that he, too, contemplated suicide as a youth, I asked if he shared that with his grandchildren. What a gift for the young people in his life to learn that grandpa suffered, and still lived a long and valued life.

After a recent visit to a senior community, a staff member sent an email in which she said, “The residents can’t stop talking about you. You left them with so much joy.”

So I come face-to-face with vocation. I am “the guy who talks about suicide” because the devastating consequences are a powerful wakeup call. I am being called to use my experience to save lives, especially the lives of those who are inexperienced in the pain, heartbreak and challenges of being human. I talk about teen depression and suicide and implore elders to help in the battle to slow the onslaught. When I do, a flame of hope arises with the thought that, maybe, just maybe, there is a vital role for them yet to play. And since hopelessness is rampant in the senior community, and suicide an all-too-frequent visitor, we just might save a few of their lives as well.

Jan 042016
 

Neil Armstrong, on his return from the moon said “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”

What if the same were true of human knowledge? What if all human knowledge could, metaphorically, be hidden behind a carefully placed thumb? What if the entirety of human thought is similarly small in relation to the vast innate wisdom that permeates the Universe? What if, in reality, we actually understand very little? What then? What do we do? How should we act, if we must proceed into the next moment with the understanding that we have little understanding? If true, this might be one of the greatest of human paradoxes.

There are, I believe, reasons to question the scope of human knowledge.

The Universe is 14 billion years in the making—the Earth some 4.5 billion—yet we believe we have come close to understanding its deepest secrets in the four or five hundred years since Galileo, Newton and Descartes. On this trajectory, if we complete our understanding in the next two hundred years, or, being conservative, one thousand, what then for the rest of humanity’s future? Will there be nothing for them to ponder about the Universe and how it works?

Even worse, what if our “knowledge” actually drags us further and further from the infinity of the Universe? Is there a possibility our thinking is so mired in orthodoxy we can no longer see beyond the limits of our current beliefs? What if, by insisting we only look through certain lenses, we are becoming more and more blind rather that more and more wise?

Is it possible that 1000 years from now, rather than having used the scientific method to find ultimate answers, we will have set aside that entire belief system as an infinitely constricted lens into the nature of reality? Might we eventually come to understand that any human view of reality will one day be similarly viewed as infinitely constricted? Is it possible we will someday discover that reality is so far beyond any potential human capability we will find our most enduring satisfaction and happiness in the not knowing?

I believe humans will always be in love with the search for the most profound wisdom the Universe is willing to share. So in love, in fact, that even if we discover the deepest wisdom comes from not knowing, we will learn to love the not knowing.