It is always an honor to be asked to read at Waterline Writers. On October 15, I read two short essays from my book “Questions That Matter.” If you like these two, the book is available by clicking here.
It is always an honor to be asked to read at Waterline Writers. On October 15, I read two short essays from my book “Questions That Matter.” If you like these two, the book is available by clicking here.
Now and again, I find the work of an author so compelling, their book deserves a mention not only in my list of recommended books, but as a separate post. “Reset Your Child’s Brain” by Victoria Dunckley, MD is such a work.
Dr. Dunckley, over the past 20 years, has been documenting a disorder she christened Electronic Screen Syndrome (ESS). It is caused when the human brain—especially in children and young adults—is chronically over-stimulated by electronics. Symptoms of ESS in youth include, but are not limited to, inability to focus, poor sleep patterns, falling grades, meltdowns, defiance, fits of rage and loss of friends.
I have wondered whether our growing addiction to laptops, tablets, smartphones, television—and the games, apps and programs that animate them—have an impact on us. However, I was unprepared for the enormity of Dr. Dunckley’s findings. It’s difficult to know where to even begin.
Perhaps most disturbing is the evidence that youth, who are often seized for hours every day in “fight-or-flight” mode, face greatly increased levels adrenaline and cortisol in their system. In that mode, the body moves blood to the muscles and away from other critical organs…like the brain. When that happens, the development of the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex can be impeded with potentially long-term adverse effects on cognition and executive function.
Secondly, the blue light emitted by virtually all screens disrupts the body’s levels of serotonin, dopamine, and melatonin, which disrupts sleep patterns and can lead to mood disorders, stress and general dysregulation of the body’s metabolic, physiological, or psychological processes.
The author does NOT leave the reader without solutions. She suggests that any person, but especially children and young adults, who show signs of ESS, avoid all electronic screens for a period of at least three weeks to see if the body is able to re-regulate and return to a healthier relationship with the outside world.
If you have children, know of children, or even care about children, this book is worth your time and attention.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
It’s time again for resolutions, but in this moment, it is not New Year’s resolutions I seek. I am, instead, in a quandary about New Epoch’s resolutions. What might I resolve as we enter what many geologists are calling the Anthropocene Epoch?
Anthropocene, much like Anthropology or anthropomorphic, takes its root from the Greek anthropos, a prefix meaning human, humanoid, or humanlike. The Anthropocene is proposed as an epoch dating from when human activities began their significant global impact on Earth‘s geology and ecosystems.
It’s one thing to conscript a resolution you can review in 12 months’ time. How do I even imagine some action in the coming days whose impact will play out over tens of thousands, or even millions, of years?
Two recent books add to my confusion. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari, and The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert both speak of tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands and even millions of years, as if they are single pages in a novel. The eons, eras, periods, and epochs of the past are forever recorded in stratifications on the Earth’s crust. The history of entire species is often reduced to a mere sliver of rock or sediment.
Harari’s book was disturbing in its reconstruction of the history of the species Homo Sapiens, the humans to whom you send annual holiday greetings and birthday cards. While we like to think of ours as the only human species to have inhabited Mother Earth, some 70,000 years ago, many human species inhabited the planet, each of the genus Homo. 60,000 years later, we had managed to rid the planet of every one of our brothers and sisters in that genus. We discovered agriculture 12,000 years ago, and within a split second, at least by geologic time, we invented the iPhone…and scarred 50% of the Earth’s surface.
Kolbert’s work chronicles the massive environmental stresses that appear to be terminating untold numbers of species—many disappearing even as you read this sentence. Whether or not you accept Homo Sapiens’ role, I believe we are highly culpable.
When I imagine human history in terms of geologic split seconds, what could possibly be the meaning of a resolution to be more kind, exercise more, lose weight, or leave a smaller personal footprint on the planet? Each seems appallingly insignificant.
As a result of our species’ arrogance and greed, many geologists believe our future is no more assured than that of the other members of the genus Homo. One scientist even suggested that in a hundred million years, all that we consider the great works of man—the sculptures, libraries, monuments, museums, cities and factories—“will be compressed into a layer of sediment not much thicker than a cigarette paper.”
Does anything I attempt, as I wander further into the Anthropocene, matter a whit, if every deed—good or bad—is destined to be lost in a layer of sediment no thicker that a cigarette paper?
In early December, I received a call from a dear friend on the staff of a nearby school district. Three days earlier, one of their students choose to end her own life. Her classmates are confused, in pain and suffering pangs of guilt. I will go there in the coming weeks to do nothing more than be with these young ambassadors to the future in their sorrow and confusion. I will try to help them see the miracle each of them is capable of being as they move into the new epoch. So, even if all human history is eventually reduced to a sliver of sediment 100 million years hence, by dint of a bit of healing and hope, we just might alter every forthcoming moment and every future layer of the Earth’s fragile skin.
In this moment, I cannot imagine anything more significant.
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.
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.
Note: The following will be published in the July/August issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.
I thought it was a small world in 1964, but I had no idea.
When I was 13, the family visited the New York World’s Fair. There is so much I remember: seeing New York City for the first time, standing in front of Michelangelo’s Pietà (its first trip outside the Vatican), the Unisphere (which was a key backdrop at the end of the movie “Men in Black”), General Motor’s Futurama, Disney’s “Audio-Animatronics” and so much more.
But the experience most deeply etched in my psyche was the ride through Pepsi’s salute to UNICEF and the World’s Children. Created by Disney for the Pepsi pavilion, “It’s a Small World,” subsequently became a permanent ride at all the Disney theme parks. The title song played continuously as we passed hundreds of dolls depicting children from around the world.
The ride, did indeed, make it seem a small world—seeing so many places and cultures in just a few moments. What was beyond anyone’s imagination was the extraordinary way in which the world would actually shrink in the ensuing fifty years.
One Saturday morning not long ago, I received a Facebook message from an old friend who knows of my work in suicide prevention. She expressed concern for a young man writing on social media about ending his life. “I don’t know him personally, but I am connected with him through the Unitarian Church. If he is willing, would you friend him on Facebook and chat?” Within minutes this young man and I were actively messaging. He was open and honest about the difficulties he faced and the reasons for believing there was no reason to go on.
After perhaps an hour of messages instantly traversing the web, I thought it might be easier to talk. It was when I asked if he would call me that the microscopic nature of the planet became palpable. “No problem sir, but sorry to say I can’t call probably since I’m in Pakistan and I hardly afford my cigarettes.”
I stood, mesmerized by the words on my smartphone. I was communicating instantaneously with a young man who lives on the other side of the planet. In the Disney “small world” of 1964, it took several minutes to move from country to country; in this moment it took mere seconds to traverse the globe. A young Pakistani and an aging American found themselves touching each other’s hearts across generations, cultures and thousands of miles. In spite of the abyss defined by age, background, culture and genealogy, the two of us were scarcely separated emotionally, politically, ethically, intellectually, and philosophically. I was touched by his wisdom, insight, generosity and self-perception.
“I am specializing in English Literature but have been a student of comparative religions, philosophical logic, kinesics, parapsychology, metaphysics, ethics and general philosophy. People tell me I’m weird because I read so much. I don’t like stupidity but I encounter it everywhere. Not many people understand me because they are stuck in trivialities like talking on girls, movies, apps, cars, wishes, etc. I find more important things to care about, like, in my country, little children beg in streets. News doesn’t show that. Child labor. Incompetent teachers. People killing people in name of religions. Hatred. Racism. It all drives me mad.”
It is always my hope to help those who feel valueless to find some, even small, measure of self-worth. After we had spent time getting to know one another and building a meaningful relationship, I sent the following message, “The world desperately needs your insight and compassion. I share your sadness regarding the world as it is. For it to become what it must be, we need young people like you. If I can, in some small way, encourage you, and you live to make the world a bit brighter, my life will have meant more.”
“You have.” he replied “To see people like you who believe in selfless unconditional help and care is always inspiring and motivating. Your existence is inspiring me.”
When a young Pakistani can bring tears to the eyes of an aging American across generations, cultures and thousands of miles, it truly is a small world. And I am grateful beyond measure.
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.