Dec 022012


Note: I beg your indulgence for this particularly long post. I have pulled it from a book I am trying to birth. It speaks to the confusion I face as I try to discern how humanity might find its way home.
The more I learn, the more the explanations I grew up with are being called into question—like mental and emotional rugs being yanked out from under me. For every book or article that proposes one worldview, there is another equally well-documented volume to propose another, often contradictory, view. I wonder if reality exists, or which author’s reality makes the most sense. Then I wonder if sense-making is even what I should be seeking. I wonder if I know anything at all. Are there really any pillars of truth on which I can build my belief systems?
I grew up in a world composed of atoms and molecules that were substantial, measurable particles. I grew into a Universe of quantum entities that zip in and out of existence at a whim, and show up as particles or waves depending on how we observe them.
I grew up in a world of answers and certainty—a world frightened by questions and confusion. I grew into a Universe in which Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle guarantees that I can never have all the answers. Knowledge of one aspect of the Universe makes another unknowable. I have come to learn that answers have a way of ending discovery and learning—while captivating questions open possibilities.
I grew up in a world in which my existence was primarily biological. My soul had a clean slate and one shot, using this body only, to make or break its infinite future in either heaven or hell. I grew into a Universe with legitimate discussion of my soul’s journey through many lifetimes to continue its growth in wisdom and enlightenment.
I grew up in a world where nature versus nurture was the only disagreement about how I came to be the person I am. I grew into a Universe in which some, like psychologist James Hillman and author Gary Zukav, suggest that my soul chose this life, with its possibilities for both joy and pain, because of the work it had to do in order to continue its journey.
I grew up in a world in which dreams were the random firings of 100 billion neurons that yielded meaningless images to be ignored, laughed at or forgotten. I grew into a Universe in which dreams might contain information about what I am called to do, or messages with deep meaning for my life’s journey. My children used Native American dream catchers to keep bad dreams out of their lives, rather than for their original purpose—to capture the meaning of dreams for insight about one’s life and calling.
I grew up in a world that actually had an “other side.” I grew into a Universe where communication technology, especially the Internet, invites the entire world into my living room. The “other side” is now on this side.
I grew up in a world where the American way of life was the envy of all. Consumerism and our market economy were great gifts that had the potential to make every human wealthy. I grew into a Universe in which it is increasingly clear there aren’t nearly enough resources to raise the world’s living standards to those of the United States. Our wasteful ways are raising the global temperature and destroying large portions of the biosphere and may eventually bankrupt the species—financially and emotionally.
I grew up in a world in which every theory, supposition, and belief had, at its heart, the fundamental importance, intelligence and superiority of humanity. Our extraordinary talents and abilities would eventually, I was led to believe, enable us to remake this place into a safe, risk-free and stable home for humans. We either were, or soon would be, the masters of all we surveyed. I grew into a Universe in which order is inherent—order that contains chaos as an integral component—and this orderliness does not require humanity to hold it together or build on it. Not only are we not required, we may be superfluous!
I grew up in a world where lives could be planned and made predictable. It was my job as a youth to find the right career so I could support a certain and stable family. Middle age was for amassing wealth because money was the only route to a bright and happy retirement. I grew into a Universe where the wisest, most deeply spiritual people I know live lives that show up in unexpected ways because they listen carefully to what they are called to do. Their lives are unpredictable and unplanned—filled with terrifying uncertainty, profound confusion…and deep satisfaction. They live lives with unimaginable wealth—sometimes they even have money.
I am slipping from youth to old age with the fear that somewhere along the way, I was supposed to have found wisdom—answers to life’s deep and imponderable questions. What I have learned is that the answers become more elusive with age and the questions grow in number and complexity.
I am a man with significant formal education who knows that his most precious and profound learning was uncovered outside the classroom.
I am a former teacher who discovered that it was not the content, but the context of my relationships with young people that had the greatest impact. And it was they who were the teachers and I the reluctant student.
I am a former manager from a Fortune 500 company who left because there seemed little room for humanity…little time in between sales calls, business meetings and strategy sessions for us to discover who we are as human beings or what we long for. Too much of the conversation was about a bigger bottom line and higher ROI, and not enough about building a spiritual legacy for future generations. There was too much of the masculine voice of decision-making and action planning and not enough of the feminine voice calling us to meaning through relationship.
It is a deeply confusing time. I have many “answers” for the challenges I face. The irony is that most of those answers only work in the world in which I grew up. They are often useless in the Universe into which I grew. The confusion is often so intense I find myself on early-morning walks moving moment-to-moment from despair to joy, terror to ecstasy, sadness to deep gratitude, with tears running down my face to signify any and all of these emotions. I wonder what I am called to think…to believe…to do. While the world offers many “answers” to each of my myriad questions, I know that few will work. I must find my own. I know where I have been—or at least I think I do—but I am profoundly confused about where I am headed.
Apr 062012


Note: This piece was recently submitted for publication in the May-June issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.
Many years ago, I taught in a private high school on the outskirts of Princeton, New Jersey. As faculty advisor in the dorm, I began each day at breakfast with the students. One freshman would frequently catch me in the dining room. “Mr. Breisch,” Sam would intone, “may I ask you a question?” I’d turn and say, “You just did! Would you like to ask another?” At the time, I felt our early morning repartee was nothing more than a way to point out a bit of irony Sam seemed unable to grasp. I now believe he was pointing me towards my future…a future in which life’s questions have become infinitely important; and answers are often more destructive than constructive.
So, even though we are not in line awaiting breakfast, may I ask a question? Or two? Have we lost the art of assembling provocative words into questions that inquire into the great mysteries of the Universe? To what extent do the answers we summon imprison our thinking and hold it hostage? When was the last time you heard a question so profound it left you in wonderment and awe? How often, in the face of questions, do we find ourselves in search of the nearest convenient answer, regardless of its ability to add a bit of wisdom to the human narrative? How often do we formulate questions for which we truly have no answer, as opposed to those whose sole purpose is to allow us to loose a carefully crafted declarative response?
Questions open us to possibilities; answers limit the future. Nowhere is this more clear than when facing a caller on the suicide hotline. In the presence of extreme desperation, which of the following do you imagine might invite you and the caller into a deeper conversation? “Suicide is not the answer.” Or “Would you be willing to share with me why you want to live?”
Lest you think my wandering through the subterranean jungle of human conversation relates only to deeply philosophical questions, or those regarding the end of life, allow me to stroll through a few of the forests that more often characterize day-to-day life.
In conversations with my wife and children I find myself too willing to jump in with a statement ending in a period, often a very large period at that. I wonder how our lives might have evolved differently if, when faced with a thought I found difficult to accept, I might respond with “That’s very interesting. Would you tell me more?”
Over the years, I have listened as many community issues have traveled the highways and byways of our public discourse. After acrimonious debate, we decided we did not want a hotel on south Batavia Avenue, but we would permit a shopping center on a portion of the Braeburn Marsh. We decided not to decide the fate of the north dam on the Fox River. Even now we find ourselves in the midst of a debate regarding the proper placement of a drugstore in our downtown and have begun to take sides on the future of a forest preserve just to the north of Fabyan Parkway.
Because of my unique position near the center of many debates, I am often privy to the edges that bound the questions. As I have listened over the years, I have been struck by the dearth of sentences that end with the extraordinary question mark. Our “public hearings” are too often attended by people who have stopped listening.
The word “discussion” itself calls into question our intentions. Its evolution from Latin meant to “smash apart” or to “scatter and disperse.” Shouldn’t our community conversations begin with an intention to gather our ideas in a generative fashion rather than scatter and disperse them?
In the coming years, humanity will face moral and ethical issues more profound than any we have ever faced. Brain scans will allow us to know what others are thinking, thus obliterating even the most intimate forms of human privacy. Genetics will allow us to custom design our children. The harvesting of human organs will blur the line between life and death. These deeply challenging issues will require intricate, new answers. Unless these answers are preceded by the most profound questions we can conjure, I fear we will be forever lost in the subterranean jungle.