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.

Jun 252018
 

Even at the quantum level, as separate and distinct, a single particle has little value. It is only when they are in relationship to other quantum entities that they form the universe.

So too for humanity. Absent our intimate relationship to all things, we are nothing.

As I write, since I feel my fingers on the keyboard, I imagine the computer and me as separate and distinct. However, if I were to pick up a writing instrument to pen these same words, the experience and result would be different. The computer and I co-create. The world is altered by my relationship to even the most inanimate of objects.

As I trek through the woods, a tree ahead appears distinct from me. I know where my body “ends” and the leaves, branches and trunk “begin.” But do I? There is a symbiotic relationship between us. The oxygen I inhale in this moment was likely “exhaled” by that living organism moments ago. The carbon dioxide I release into the atmosphere is vital to the tree’s future. Each season, a tree will take thousands of gallons of water from the soil and release it into the air as water vapor. Those molecules return to Earth as rain, and to me through the foods I eat and the water I drink. The tree and I are in deep relationship; I am biologically part of that tree, and it a part of me.

Even thoughts originating in my cerebral cortex, which my ego insists make me distinct from others, are proof of relationship not separation. Virtually every neural pathway in my brain has been formed through experience with, and mental formulations that originate in, the world outside of me. Every sound I hear, article I touch, morsel I taste and object I see, alters my relationship with the world and changes the entity I thought myself to be.

My emotional being, as well, is intimately related to, and formed by, the world around me. Every story of pain and heartache I encounter in the lives of friends, or from a call to the suicide hotline, alters my emotional sense of the world.

There is little we own…little for which we can take credit. Every word, every thought, every feeling, emerges from ideas and experiences gifted to us by others. Nor is our ability to hold, synthesize and retell them ours to own. They, too, are gifts we have learned from others.

If I search deeply for the “I” I believe is me, I soon discover there isn’t one. The harder I look, the more intense my gaze, the more I discover that everything I think of as me, was formed through an infinity of relationships. I am nothing more than a confluence of influences—simply the intersection of the fields through which this collection of human cells has traveled. I am, simply put, the result of trillions of quantum particles in relationship.

Western culture moves in harmony with the sacredness and importance of the individual. We go to any lengths, and put many in jeopardy, to save one. But the moment I drift from the sacredness of life to the importance of my own, I excise myself from humanity. I allow myself to become isolated, distinct and apart. My thoughts and ideas are wrenched from their rightful place within the ecosystem where they were formed, and where they can be challenged, debated, refined and potentially discarded. Ego takes over and I elevate my ideas to a place of superiority and rightness.

The Sufi mystic and poet Hafitz once said “I am a hole in the flute through which God’s breath flows.” At best, the confluence of thoughts, ideas, and experiences I refer to as myself is no more than a capacity through which the Universe itself is trying to be seen. If I can remain true to simply being the hole, and refrain from imagining myself to be the breath, or the player of the flute, only then is there hope.

Apr 092018
 

A friend, working his way through my book, Questions that Matter, had just read, and was thinking about, the essay “Patiently Waiting for Me.” In the song “I’m Movin On,” country artists Rascal Flatts sing “Finally I see…life has been patiently waiting for me.” In the essay, I ask if the “me” life is waiting for is someone I have the power to create, as a sculptor fashioning form out of amorphous clay, or someone I was always meant to be, as when curtains are parted to reveal a stunning landscape? In the end, I find the latter metaphor more trustworthy and provocative.

As we talked, he explained his belief; as we live our lives, we discover several things we can do well, then we choose one of those to become.

However, that was not what I was thinking or feeling when I wrote the essay a few years ago. The “me” life is waiting for is not found in the things I do. Life, instead, is patiently waiting for me to find, unlock and live into the essential, deeply authentic person I was sent here to be. Once I discover that essential soul, I can live it into nearly any role I choose.

As we live our life, we spin a thread. That thread is uniquely ours…it has never been spun before…and it will never, ever be spun again. The strength and power of that thread is directly related to our ability and willingness to discover, and live into, our most authentic self.

And what does that mean? It is said that Michelangelo, when asked how he could carve the magnificent statue of David from a block of marble, replied “I chip away everything that does not look like David.” Life, if we live it courageously, is a continual opportunity to chip away everything that does not resemble our truly authentic self.

How is it we chip away that which does not resemble us? A friend once counseled that the community must name our gifts since, due to their innate and intimate nature, they are often invisible to us. That which comes most naturally is easy to deny. “Anyone can do that,” is a normal retort to anyone who holds up a mirror to help us see in ourselves what they see. If we quiet the voice of denial, those who know us and love us—I call them truthtellers—will help us chip away some of that which does not resemble our authentic self.

Beyond that, we learn who we are, and who we are not, when we find the courage to go fearlessly into the world. It will rough us up. It will frequently break our hearts and bring us to tears. The human journey is not easy. Pain and sorrow are difficult, but essential in the discovery of human wisdom. When our hearts break, we learn something more about generosity, kindness, empathy, caring and love. And when we do, more of who we are not falls away and we come closer to what is true and authentic.

For me, many things have fallen away, and essential pieces remain. My grandmother always commented on my willingness to show love and affection. That remains. I cherish my ability to challenge others to see in new ways, and I am, and have always loved being, a teacher. Those are pieces of who I am, not what I do. Those essential fragments, when I find the confidence and courage, are the ground in which everything I do is planted and takes root.

When we discover the magnificence of our life and live that into the world, we realize the thread our life is spinning is golden and priceless. And when we live that thread into the world. we discover, as I have said before in these pages, we have the ability to reweave the very fabric of the Universe.

Feb 112018
 

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

Frederick Buechner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sep 282017
 

The call came from a young man in a parked car. He was unmerciful. “I am a horrible, evil person. I don’t deserve to live.” I asked if he would be willing to share what led to such fierce condemnation.

Just before he left a nearby store, as he waited in the checkout line, something happened that put him “over the edge.” In a moment of frustration, he turned to the woman behind him in line and let loose an unkind remark. Now, near tears and overwhelmed at having relived the incident, he continued. “It’s not who I want to be! How could I have been so cruel to that poor woman. I hoped I was a better human being than that.” My heart broke for this young man in his deep regret and sadness.

He was a veteran; I was horrified to hear even a few details of what he witnessed while he served his country. I can’t even imagine how I might view the world differently had I lived through the horrors he recounted. Now, he was trying to create a post-military life. He was struggling in a relationship and stressed by his job and mounting bills. His parents were deceased, and he had no friends who could understand what he was going through. He felt totally alone. It became clear he was living his entire life “on the edge.”

When he told me again he felt himself a horrible, evil person, I stopped him with a question. “Do you want to be a person who is humbled and sorry, vowing to try harder next time, or would you rather be a person who dismisses his actions and doesn’t care.” Now in tears, he admitted the depth of his sorrow and how he was determined to try harder in the future. “So, while you disappointed yourself a moment ago—did not live up to the code of conduct you expect of yourself—in this moment, you are living into your highest expectations.” He paused and whispered, “Yeah, I guess I am.”

“Is it also true,” I pressed, “that you learned from this painful experience? Do you think you will move into the next moments of your life a bit more compassionate, generous, and wise?” “I sure hope so. I will certainly try,” he replied.

Before the call ended, I told him how much I grieved for his self-doubt. In the short time we spoke, I had come to know him as a man who wanted so intensely to be perfect. “I am sorry for the mistake you made a few moments ago. Both of us wish it had not happened. But here’s the dirty little secret about being human,” I told him, “you will err again! When we fail, those moments are evidence of our humanness…not our inhumanity.”

Not long after that call, I was having coffee with a young friend who struggled through high school. He was active in Operation Snowball, the teen program for which I volunteer. Now in college, he still struggles. He admitted to the many times he, too, feels he is evil. I know this young man. He has a huge heart, filled with wisdom and compassion for everyone he meets. The word “evil” will never reside in anyone’s description of this young soul…save for his own.

As we spoke, I looked into his eyes and realized he could only witness a mistake as errant because he viewed the world through a heart molded of goodness. A person who is truly evil, would not have eyes that could see evil, nor a heart that could feel it.

In the end, we are, after all, only human. As much as I endeavor to turn every moment into one of worth and value, I know I will fail again and again. But when we are able to witness failures as evidence of our humanness, and endeavor to redeem ourselves in the future, our capacity for compassion, generosity, and wisdom expands. Those moments become proof of our growing goodness, not our inhumanity.

Sep 182017
 

“Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.”
                                                Parker Palmer

These provocative words remind me of a question I was asked many years ago…one that haunts me to this very moment. “How do I know that the life I am living is my life.”

The question turns on a deeply philosophical issue: Is this life one of my creation, or is it possible there is an extraordinary life written in the heavens and my task is to discover it—listen carefully for its clues—and then to live into it fully. Not predestination—a life tied to inescapable outcomes—but a life of beauty and meaning available as a gift to be opened and revealed. If it is, how might I unwrap it and bring it naked into the world?

In my years on Earth, I have been given many hints that point to truths about who I am…and some that point me away from my essence. How do we sift the life-giving wheat from the painful, hurtful chaff of life? Perhaps the task is to discover ears that can hear, and eyes that can see, the core of who we are.

When I was in high school, a Christian Brother turned to me unexpectedly one day and said, “Roger, you get along with everyone.” The words pierced me. I wanted to believe them. They were kind and from his heart. But I brushed them off as too beautiful. Even today I find I have many friends, and few people with whom I do not get along.

As a junior in a Catholic high school I was asked to speak at a retreat about the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding life. I spoke of the power of listening and following the call of a higher power. To this day, I still find the most powerful moments in my life are when I am listening for the call of an authority beyond me.

I hated writing essays in high school, but not many years later I had to write essays to accompany my applications to business school. I found myself writing with a passion I had never felt. When the words stopped coming and the paragraphs and thoughts seemed complete I asked two high school English teachers to edit them. I waited with baited breath for their critique. They told me not to change a word! To this day I find that words when words emanate from a deep place I feel most alive…most honest…most like the authentic Roger I am still getting to know.

At her last Snowball weekend retreat, when I thanked her again for asking me to become involved, she looked at me and said “I believe I came here to bring you to Snowball. You are my gift to this organization.”

I am reminded of a prayer. “Oh God, please help me to accept the reality of my life…no matter how beautiful it is.”

Each of us is given many clues as to who you are…or are meant to be. However, we also receive the chaff of life—messages of hurt and distraction. We need to learn how to walk carefully past those and not allow them to claim us. The ones we most need to heed are the ones that pierce us with their authenticity, those that feel true but too close to our heart, ones we wish to deny because of our fear we cannot live fully into them.

When a Christian Brother, retreat leader, truthful teacher, or a child looks me in the eye and says, “This I see in you,” I have been handed a valuable and delicate ribbon. When I tug gently, I begin to unwrap my gifts. Then and only then can I begin to live MY life.

Aug 012017
 

Just released on Amazon.com (www.amazon.com/dp/0692920196/), my new book entitled:

Questions That Matter

From the back Cover:

Would you be willing to share with me, why you want to live?

This question, asked of people so bereft of joy and connection that they have considered ending their lives, has taught Roger Breisch much about life and the human journey.

Having logged more than 3000 hours answering calls on suicide hotlines, Breisch has come to know the vital, often life-saving role that questions play in our daily discourse. “Answers have a way of ending discovery and learning,” he declares in Questions That Matter, his first collection of writings inspired, in part, by his revelatory experiences talking people off the ledge. “Captivating questions, however, open us to unimaginable possibilities…”

Breisch’s provocative essays explore profound truths hidden within the familiar questions we all share–questions about our lives, our work, our relationships, our gifts, and what, if anything, they mean. “We all struggle to know how to live in a complex and confusing world,” he reminds us. “We desperately want to know what the future might bring for us and humanity…”

Questions That Matter provides insights far more enlightening than pat answers about an unknowable future. Every page is watermarked with healing wisdom that guides us back to the things that matter most on the journey forward – the love and kindness that illuminate our individual lives, and collective soul.

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.

Nov 032016
 

“Your analysis of your life and its failures has the ring of truth since congruent with your self-preoccupation.”

This comment appeared unbidden on my blog. It evoked a great deal of thought and reflection about what occupies my life…and what should.

My first reaction was colored by fear and humiliation, with various shades of self-recrimination. I have a deep-seated, private fear that too much of my life has been about, well, my life.

As I continued to reflect, I recalled that preoccupy means to occupy your mind and life with one thing before you live into and contemplate others. If self-preoccupation means to focus on self before others, at first blush, a person who does that would seem to lack humility and regard for others. Certainly that is worthy of self-condemnation!

However, just after I received this missive from cyberspace, I began reading Martin Buber’s “I and Thou.” Early in the work Buber says “The basic word I-You can only be spoken with one’s whole being.”

Perhaps I am a slow learner, but much of what I know of who I am, and who I am capable of being, has come to me in the most recent years of my life. As I have come to discover fragments that lay shy and hidden for nearly half a century, admittedly, I have spent many hours reflecting on, and writing about, the magnitude, boundaries, and meaning of those newly-exposed facets of self.

Is it possible, I began to wonder, that without sufficient occupation with self before others, I am incapable of speaking with my whole being? Is it possible that, without some amount of self-preoccupation I am speaking largely from a false self? Do I need to know self before I can be in relation to others in the sense Buber suggests?

What I have come to believe is that the more I come to know who I am, and of what I am capable, the more easily I can let go of self-preoccupation and relax into being who I was always meant to become.

Apr 032015
 

Note: The following will be published in the May/June issue of Neighbors of Batavia Magazine.

“Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.”

Neil Postman

I love Neil Postman’s insight, even though it speaks so forcefully of my own mortality. There will be, in the briefest of moments, a time I will not see.

None of us will be remembered. My children, and a few of their friends perhaps, will remember me, as will the next generation, albeit with far less intensity. If I am remembered a third or fourth generation hence, it will be at most in wisps…an occasional anecdote, image or memory. Beyond that I am quite certain the human whose moniker was Roger Breisch will be long forgotten.

But Postman reminds me of a different kind of immortality. Any time humans imprint wisdom upon one another, each moves into the future carrying the messages learned from the other. Thoughts change, actions change and the future becomes something new. When we have the unique opportunity to touch the lives of children and young adults, there is the possibility some small piece of us will live into a more distant—and different—future. That thought bring tears to my eyes when a teen at Snowball, or a young caller on the suicide hotline, admits to some new thought or understanding as a result of our few moments together.Pen and Ink Senior Portrait 2

But that view puts me at the center, as progenitor of messages to the future. What if I am not?

Last summer I attended my 45th high school reunion. Ed Deyman, a classmate, reproduced with pen & ink all 250 portraits from our senior yearbook—his reproduction of my portrait appears just to the right.

The image was large, perhaps 12 by 15 inches. From the moment I saw it, I was astonished how well Ed captured the young man I knew those many years ago. When we returned home, I unfurled the portrait on the kitchen counter. I was struck how the eyes followed me regardless of the angle from which I tried to elude them.

Suddenly, the ink on paper came to life. As I peered with more care and a bit of compassion, it was no longer simply a sketch on the counter—the person I knew so intimately for the first 18 years of his life was staring at me. It was an unexpected moment of intimacy between two people who knew one another well, but each had somehow forgotten the other existed.

His eyes seemed to look deeper into me than any other I could recall. It was as if that young man could see me, the man he was to become, in the same way I could see him. He was able to examine the life he was to live. I could hold nothing back, since he would see every moment of joy and grace, and live into every mistake, from the minuscule to those that remain intensely painful.

For nearly a year, that young man has stared at me expectantly, and I have struggled to discern what it is he might be asking.

Then recently it came to me. Just as today, I show up in the lives of young people with as much authenticity as I can so they might discern a message that fits their lives, in the years when that image was first captured, there were hundreds of adults whose lives taught me something unique about what it means to be human. “Are you,” that young man seems to be asking me today, “living with integrity, sincerity and love into the messages those extraordinary humans formed within us?”

Suddenly, in the world I now discern, I am the carrier rather than progenitor of messages. It is humbling to remember I am simply the medium through which their wisdom is gifted to the future. If, along the way, I add some small bit of insight to theirs, then I too will live into untold generations yet unborn. But for now, I will try, with integrity, sincerity and love, to be the living message they hoped I might be in order to ensure their lives live into the time they can no longer see.