Jun 082016
 

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.

Mar 262016
 

The dominant hues in the picture I painted of the young man on the phone were strength, perseverance, courage and determination. All he could see were dark pigments of failure, disappointment and weakness.

Sam (not his real name) was negotiating his senior year in high school. In junior high, he found himself in an unspeakably horrific hole. Nearly anything you wish to stuff into that hole was likely there tormenting him. He had lost himself, and I suspect, the world nearly lost him as well. Sometime during his sophomore year he realized he no longer wanted to be the person he saw himself becoming, so he clawed his way out of that hellhole. He rid himself of the enormous negative influences that kept him i015mprisoned, kicked numerous frightening habits, jettisoned most of his “friends,” and dedicated himself to his studies. Now, as a senior, he has good grades and is applying to several wonderful colleges.

I was so taken by him I told him I loved him, loved who he is and who he is becoming. He began to sob. I asked the source of the tears. “You’re the first person who ever told me they loved me.” That nearly ripped my heart out. But all Sam could see when he looked in the mirror was a failed young man who made countless, unforgivable mistakes. In his mind he feared that who he truly is, and always will be, is a failure.

In the figure above, the two squares highlighted by the arrows are—ready?—the exact same shade of gray. If you don’t believe me, put them side by side.

I find this a powerful metaphor. What if the two squares represent the differing portraits of Sam; that which I saw versus that to which Sam is witness? It’s the same person, but our views are so dramatically different…so incongruous…it’s hard to imagine we are picturing the same person.

So, from where do the two images of Sam—mine versus his—emerge?

I’m told John Keats once posited the heart is the only organ strong enough to educate the mind. As I reflect on my time with Sam, the palette with which I painted was of the heart. As we spoke, my heart broke open and the emerging masterpiece that was Sam simply appeared. He was a strong, courageous young man who had made many, forgivable mistakes. He is human after all.

The primary palette at Sam’s disposal was of the mind, tainted and dulled by the memory of failures, hurts and mistakes. As I painted, the canvas was not distorted by the foibles of his humanity. His was, so his brush was unable to capture the beauty and authenticity.

On another call a few weeks later, a young man announced he had a gun in his lap and intended to use it. From as far back as he could remember he was tormented physically, emotionally and sexually—from every quarter of his existence. The story was painful to hear—impossible to imagine as anyone’s reality. He felt worthless, hopeless and ready to end his unspeakable pain. I suggested the story he told emerged largely from the scars and hurts that filled his memory. I asked if a different story might emerge if he listened to his heart. When he glimpsed his world through his sensitive, complex and delicate heart, he tearfully told of his ability to change the lives of many other young people. Because of his deep understanding of the meaning of human existence, he could hold up a powerful mirror to others to help them see themselves in new ways. As our call ended, he happily put the gun away.

For too many, the canvas of our lives is distorted by memories of hurt, failure and scars. We are far more facile at opening our hearts and seeing the masterpiece that is the other, than we are at seeing our own. But if we had the facility to see the image others paint of us—that of the heart—we just might witness a masterpiece.

Nov 132015
 

Last Sunday morning I unexpectedly found myself in the embrace of an African American teen who was crying uncontrollably. His deep emotional response was too much for me to remain untouched; my tears soon followed. After several minutes, he released his grip, looked me in the eye and said “Thank you so much.” I felt blessed by the encounter.

How can an aging white male and a young black man find such an intimate moment of meeting? It blossomed from our shared humanity, and a profound need in our culture.

The final event on every Snowball weekend is a hug circle. We wind the nearly 120 teens and 20 or more adults in a snake-like pattern that enables each of us to face and hug every other participant. I began and ended the circle with a young man I had seen on the event, but had not met. I had no idea how dramatically that was about to change.

As he and I finished, some in the room had yet to hug everyone, so we had a moment to chat. Never wanting to waste an opportunity to peer into another, I asked what he learned about himself during the previous forty eight hours. “I learned I cry very easily,” he said. It can be difficult for a male in this culture to admit they are not always in control of their emotions. Young men are ridiculed or bullied for cultural infractions far less serious.

I thanked him and expressed my belief that men need to learn how to be more in touch with their emotions, and publicly vulnerable. “After all my years in Snowball, if there is one thing teens respect…appreciate… perhaps even love me for, it is my willingness to be open and emotionally exposed…often in tears” I pointed to his heart and said “Your tears—modeling vulnerability—may be your greatest gift.” It was those words that caught him. Tears welled up and our extended embrace began.

Had you told me before I began my foray into Operation Snowball ten years ago I would one day find words to draw tears from a young man in this way, I would likely have found it difficult to believe. But I have since learned I have some facility to look deeply into the hearts of teens and hold up a mirror to help them see the beauty I see.

Whenever I am gifted by such moments, worlds shift—both mine and the teen’s—and I feel graced by the encounter. And I am reminded we never learn all there is to be learned about who we are, and the blessings that lie ahead.

Oct 212015
 

Dear David & Kathryn,

Yesterday, on the suicide hotline, I spoke with a young man who is struggling greatly as he nears the end of his high school career. A number of years ago, life opened before him a horrific, hellacious valley. He fell in and was held captive for too many years. In the past year, not wanting his life defined by the choices that caused his fall, he found the courage to claw his way out of the abyss.

One of the miracles of the hotline is that callers, desperate for help, will often open completely and allow a glimpse into their heart and soul. This young man certainly did. I was witness to a heart filled with wisdom, generosity and love. And while his beauty was so very clear to me, all he could see were the mistakes that led to his trip into hell. He was nearly blind to the miraculous nature of his recovery. I was in awe of his courage on the journey.

Nearly an hour into our time together, I paused and said, “I don’t say this to many callers, but I love you young man. I am in love with who you are, and who you are becoming through the struggles you have faced, and the courage you found to overcome.” He began to cry. Through his tears he said quietly, “I’m not crying because I’m sad. I’m crying because you’re the first person who has ever told me they loved me.” In that moment, I found it impossible to hold back my own tears. How could a young man preparing for college, never have been told he was loved or lovable?

As I reflected on story of this young man, I thought of the two of you. I would be heartbroken if I thought there was even a moment in your life in which you thought you were either unloved or unlovable.

I am in awe of the two of you as well. I am inspired by the joy, creativity, wisdom, generosity and love that flow from each of you. Even if I have told you before, it cannot be said too often: my heart nearly bursts with love and admiration when I think of either of you…and the miracle you are in my life.

A sage in ancient India once observed a knife that can cut anything, cannot cut itself. As humans, we can easily see in others what we cannot witness in ourselves…just like the young man I spoke with yesterday. In moments of sadness, loneliness or challenge, even if you must take it on faith alone, remember you are truly loved, lovable and are a miracle in the lives of those around you.

Love,

Dad

Aug 052015
 

Note: The following will appear in the September/October issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

I have spoken before larger audiences, but this was to be my first TEDx talk[*]. Giving such a talk is a huge honor, but, at some point you realize your remarks will live forever on the Internet; it matters not whether you deliver them with eloquence…or stumble meaninglessly for 18 minutes. The thought of reliving a poor performance for the rest of one’s life can add a certain amount of terror to the moment.

As I drafted, edited and practiced my remarks, my hope was to influence those who might eventually hear them. I had a number of groups willing to hear what was on my mind in the weeks preceding TEDxIIT, so I had abundant opportunities to rehearse. I discovered, as the ideas rewrote themselves, the more I spoke from my heart, the stronger the reaction to my message. When I edged towards a logical, rational narration, the audience responded with polite applause and kind comments. When I spoke from my heart, with words tinted by emotion, those to whom I spoke reacted with rapt attention and walked away with deeper understanding. They found within, and shared with each other, more profound wisdom.

John Keats once said the heart is the only organ strong enough to educate the mind. A number of years ago, when improvisational pianist Michael Jones reminded me of Keats’ wisdom, he added, “When we are thinking from our heart we are never far from tears.”

The journey I traversed in the 24 hours before my walk onto that stage this past April is worth a moment so I can honor the person who gave me permission to think from my heart…to navigate the territory between logic and emotion with deep authenticity in that very public, frightening place.

The fourteen presenters rehearsed the day before TEDxIIT. After my rehearsal, Bob Roitblat, the stage manager and advisor, pulled me aside and admitted my remarks touched him. Bob is a professional speaker and actor—his command of the stage is inspiring—so his generous comment helped build my confidence and allay the terror. However, as the conference began the following day, my trepidation grew. Since many of the talks preceding mine had a decidedly technical bent, I feared the audience would be uninterested in my message. My remarks were written to educate their mind by touching on their hearts.

At the break, I told Bob I was losing my nerve. When I expressed my fear the audience was in a state of mind rather than a state of heart, he told me “What you have to say is more important than any of the technology stuff.” It was kind and generous, but not nearly as powerful as the words he imparted the moment before I walked on the stage. He grabbed me by the arm, looked me in the eye and said, “You go out there and make me cry!”

From the first moments on that stage, as I mentioned my work on the suicide hotline, I wrestled with tears. I wondered if I touched on my emotions too early, but as I walked off the stage, Bob reassured me once again. “Did you see the audience’s reaction? You grabbed their attention from those early moments and never let go.”

I frequently find myself betwixt and between logical thought and deep emotion; caught somewhere in the fissure between my cerebral cortex and my heart. We live in an era that would have us believe the logical and rational are the singular keys to success. We practically abhor emotions. When they arrive, often unbidden, we are encouraged not to feel. One young man I spoke with last year was suffering from a number of reversals in his life. He was struggling mightily, and told me tearfully how frightened he was. When I asked if he could gain support and comfort from his father and older brother, he said, “You don’t understand, in my family, a man who admits to a struggle is simply ridiculed.”

The word courage and the word heart both derive from the Latin word cor. It takes courage to allow the heart to educate the mind. Perhaps someday we will, collectively, become more comfortable thinking from our hearts…and honor those who are never far from tears.

 

[*] You can find a link to my remarks, entitled “Beyond Measure,” on the homepage of REBreisch.com. If you are unfamiliar with TED talks, I recommend a visit to TED.com. There are thousands of short videos from brilliant thinkers around the world on virtually any topic. TEDx conferences are independently organized, local conferences intended to give tens of thousands of others an opportunity to share thoughts and ideas.

Jun 212014
 

I recall a video game, Tetrisphere, which was a variation of Tetris. In the game the player confronted a sphere covered by three-dimensional shapes. The game provided the player with a series of objects similar in shape to those covering the sphere. When you matched a piece with one on the outermost layer of the sphere, it would disappear and reveal a small portion of a level nearer the sphere’s core. The object was to eliminate enough pieces to open the core and release a friendly little robot.

One challenging aspect of the game is the sphere grows with time, making it more difficult for the player to reach the core before time runs out.

From the beginning, Tetrisphere struck me as a powerful metaphor for life. We are continually given experiences of life in the form of challenges, joys, suffering, love and confusion. Each piece of life—a different size, shape and color—is an invitation to fit it into our knowing, or unknowing. When we live these experiences with authenticity and vulnerability, the wisdom we gain tears away a small piece of who we may have thought we were to expose a slightly deeper level of our true selves. The goal of life, perhaps, is to tear away enough of the layers to release into the world the essence of who we are.

If, on the other hand, we allow the experiences of life, especially those that are painful and difficult, to add to the layers that separate us from the core of who we are, it becomes more difficult to discover who we were meant to be.

A call came from a young man who, in that moment, knew little of his self-worth. He had made a decision some months earlier that had extremely unpleasant consequences for loved ones in his life. Because of the pain he had caused, he felt himself a horrible, selfish person—new layers making it more difficult to see himself for who he truly is.

We know that even “poor” decisions are usually made in the best way we know how at the moment of choice. I asked, early in the conversation, if that was true for him. “No!” he insisted. “I knew better…I should never have made that choice.” He told me his heart felt dirty, sullen and hidden.

In the midst of the call, I began to wonder silently why we find it so difficult to offer ourselves the generosity and understanding we offer others. As our relationship developed I began to grasp the overpowering anxiety pervading his life at the time of his fateful decision. It was so strong it clouded his view of life and pointed him to the decision he eventually made. When I asked him about his panic and apprehension, he reluctantly admitted he did, indeed, feel a loss of control over his life. So I asked, if he were to show himself the kindness he would show another, would he be willing to admit that he was indeed a good and kind person, who, in a moment of confusion, made a choice he now rejected. There was a moment of silence after which he said quietly, “Maybe so.” He paused for a moment longer, and then he asked, “Do you think the pain I am feeling is my heart trying to find its way back into the world?”

Even as I write these words, tears well up. I could do nothing in the moments that followed but be in awe of the profundity of his insight. It was one more of life’s experience pointing him to the magnificence of who he is behind the layers of who he is not.

Aug 122012
 
      “Truth never happens in real time.” Those are the first few words in the book “Sacrament of Fear” written by an old friend, Will Dresser. The moment I read them, they captured a profundity I did not completely understand. Perhaps I do now, if even just a little.
On July 28, I rode the final leg of the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa—affectionately known as RAGBRAI. RAGBRAI is the oldest, largest and longest bicycle touring event in the world. This was the 40th annual trek, and 10,000 riders registered for the 7-day adventure. Additional souls can ride any segment, so, on July 28, there were somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 riders who peddled from Anamosa to Clinton—across the beautiful, rolling farmlands of eastern Iowa.
I left Anamosa at 7:15 a.m., and for the next five and a half hours, hundreds—sometimes thousands—of bicycles were captured between the west and east horizons of my world. It was amazing. I have never experienced anything like it in my life.
I will admit my euphoria ebbed and flowed as I rode. There were times every muscle ached. Due to the dearth of natural padding in the nether regions of my backside, I wondered if I might have a “dead end” before reaching the final miles into Clinton. Even though each of the small towns along the route offered refreshments, music and warm welcomes, I took only two short breaks. I feared if I stopped longer, I’d never convince my tender derrière to return to its rightful position saddled atop my metallic steed.
Arriving in Clinton, I felt a bit of a fraud. Lining the streets for the last several miles were thousands of local families, sitting on the front lawns, waving flags and signs, cheering us all on. “You’re doing great!” “Congratulations!” “Well done!” They were yelling primarily to the brave souls who were completing the grueling 7-day ride. Even though I had ridden only 69.4 miles, it was the longest ride of my life, so I allowed myself to accept the warm greetings and congratulations of the kind people of Clinton.
Some weeks later, however, I realize the truth of the ride was not in my euphoria at my accomplishment. It was in the message enrobed by my effort.
Our son, David, is webmaster for the Quad Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau, the QCCVB—if you go to VisitQuadCities.com, his are the fingertips that animate it. Over the past four years, he has hosted Judi and me for numerous events and extravaganzas. I love witnessing his great delight in having us there to support and enjoy the things that have become important to him. He has come to love the QuadCities and the two states that encompass them.
It was David who encouraged me to challenge the final leg of the 40thannual RAGBRAI. But this invitation into his world was different from those that brought us here before. It was clear, if I accepted, I would be on my own. Neither he nor Judi had any desire to put their body to this test. They were happy to act as “support crew,” and enjoy a leisurely drive from point of departure to the spot were riders dipped their front tire into the “Mighty Mississippi”, attaching an exhilarating exclamation point to the end of the journey.
When I finished that sunny afternoon in Clinton, Iowa, David’s only question was “Dad, did you enjoy it?” The euphoria I felt made my reply clear. But it wasn’t my words that answered his real question…a question many of us have of our parents. The truth, unavailable in real time, was that, having put so much of myself into this event—training for weeks and exerting most every muscle for more than 5 hours—was a tangible expression of my love and regard for him…and who he is becoming in this world. The physical act said more than I could ever put into words.
I have been reminded yet again that our actions do speak louder than words, and the intensity of our actions often speak to the depth of their meaning.
I do love who you are, David, and who you are becoming, more that words can ever express.
Jan 072012
 

 

Every once in a while I am arrogant enough to think that life has left me in charge. When I believe I am, life is quick to remind me of my arrogance.
Just before Christmas, the Operation Snowball family lost another teen to suicide. This past Thursday, the teen directors decided to use the weekly meeting to explore the scourge of teen suicide. They chose two videos and asked me to facilitate.
I watched the videos that afternoon. They were compelling. In the second, based on the song Why by Rascal Flatts, the line “Why would you leave the stage in the middle of a song” rips my heart out, especially as I recall the loss of my dear young friend Dakota Lewis. All afternoon, I held tight to an emotional roller coaster as I imagined the powerful evening that might emerge. In my hands would be the hearts and minds of 50 or more teens. These extraordinary young people mean so much to me, the possibility of turning these few sacred moments into a deep learning experience—one in which they might look inside and glimpse a bit of their radiance—was overwhelming.
I contemplated what I might say…the stories I might tell… and the tears and emotions that would surely show them the depth of my care and concern. I recalled words from Thich Nhat Hanh and his metaphor of the master gardener who could see flowers in the midst of compost. I searched for the perfect reflections from Dr. Rachel Remen, who, in the course of her work with those dying of cancer, discovered the power and meaning that can emerge even from life’s most horrific moments. I even brought a few written words that flowed from my heart in the aftermath of the death of Dylan Wagner and Dakota. I recounted hundreds of ways these words and stories might help the teens peer into their own lives, even with the moments of excruciating pain and heartache, and glimpse the magnificence available on the other side of the journey into hell.
As the evening progressed, I felt lost and confused. The teens brought forth their wisdom, and shared their stories, and I felt nearly a deaf mute. The hundreds of thoughts that coursed through me that afternoon were elusive. The tears and emotions that would show the depth of my love and concern were simply unavailable in those moments. I went home devastated. I felt as though I had let the participants down. Even worse, I felt I let down the Teen Directors who have so much respect for me that they entrusted me with these moments. At the very least I let myself down.
The teens come to the Thursday night meetings to reconnect over games, experiences and exercises—most of which are fun. To expect them to spend a precious evening on a difficult, emotional topic is a great deal to ask. The least I could have given them was some deep insight into the meaning of life. Some small awakening would perhaps be adequate compensation for a somber evening. That wisdom is inside me; I feel it welling up even in this very moment. But in those moments, it was simply not available. We spoke that evening about the moments in life in which we feel a sense of worthlessness. I went home that night fighting those very feelings within.
So, Megan, Jack, Molly and Aaron, I am sorry if I let you down. My intentions were fueled by care, concern and love. I was simply unable to let you and the participants see deeply into the soul that held them tightly that night…unavailable to me and to all of you.
You may have left me in charge, but life had another lesson in store.

 

Nov 272011
 

 

“Finally I see…life has been patiently waiting for me”
                                    From the song “I’m Movin’ On” by Rascal Flatts.
The song I’m Movin’ On and I had simultaneously visited the same space many times, but being in the same place with an idea, or a person, does not mean you are friends…or even acknowledge one another’s presence. It certainly does not mean you are in love. But one morning I began a love affair with the words “life has been patiently waiting for me.” I have learned to listen carefully when words touch my heart, and these—in that moment—surely did.
The more I reflect on them, the more hopeful, valued and beautifully incomplete I felt. The hope comes from the sense that, even as I bid adieu to middle-age and approach elderhood, life was still willing to wait for me. I am not too late. I feel valued because I am important enough to be waited for, and I am not being waited for by something insignificant—life itself is waiting! Finally, I feel beautifully incomplete! Yes, beautifully incomplete. To be complete would imply there was nothing left to my life. Nothing left to learn. No one left for me to touch, or to be touch by. Incomplete never felt so wonderful.
Or so confusing and frightening.
Questions emerge. Who is the “me” life is waiting patiently for? If I am incomplete, are there parts nearing completion? Are there parts I have yet to even begin to know? If I “know” many things about who I am, can I be certain which are real and which are impostors? How, over the course of my lifetime have I learned to tell the real from the false…the identities that are me, versus those my ego inappropriately apprehended many years ago and is unwilling to release?
There seem endless questions, but one in particular captures me. The “me” life is waiting for…is it someone I have within my power to create, as a sculptor fashioning form out of amorphous clay or stone. Or is life waiting for me to reveal and live into the person I was always meant to be, as a landscape is revealed when curtains are gently parted? These suddenly seemed two very different views of what it means to grow as a human: to sculpt a person I envision, or to gently reveal the person envisioned from beyond.
I wonder whether a very common vision of human life—perhaps the pervasive Western view—is wrong, or at least horribly incomplete. I was raised to believe that humans are born tabula rasa—we arrive as a clean slate on which our story is written and we are the primary authors. Born as nothing more than potential, we are presented with an untold number of years on this Earth during which to create ourselves. “You can be whatever you want to be,” I was told in so many ways…and by so many people. The evidence they use to prove that life works this way can be compelling. Look at the legions of role models whose lives seem to verify that worldview—politicians, entrepreneurs, religious leaders and community organizers who made something of themselves. The story line is that through their effort they made themselves into something they would not have been if they had not carefully sculpted it from an amorphous presence.
I am no longer certain that is life’s most compelling story.
And what be might a different story of life? A story of emergence more than one of creation. I wonder if life is about growing into who we are meant to be rather than creating who we wish to become. I wonder if life is about allowing the core of who we are to emerge. Taking a metaphor from nature, an oak tree emerges—it does not create itself. A rose blossoms, it doesn’t endeavor to be something other than what it is destined to become.
The image I have in mind is that Roger Breisch has, and has had since conception—or earlier—unique, strengths…characteristics…personality traits…gifts, as well as deficits and weaknesses. The perfect descriptors escape me. Regardless, what’s important is that the quality of my impact on the world is in direct relation to the extent to which I show up through those gifts and weaknesses—naked and absolutely authentic. To the extent I insist on showing up without them, to the extend that I try to co-create the world with those around me as someone I truly am not, I am lost, ineffective and superficial.
There is perhaps a different way of envisioning the metaphor of the sculptor…different from one who creates. I have heard it said that Michelangelo was asked how he could find the magnificent image David within an amorphous block of stone. As I recall the story, he said the task was easy…he simply chipped away the parts that did not look like David. That is an image of discovery, not one of creation. Perhaps that is a more powerful way of envisioning our lives…as a process of chipping away the parts of the stone that no longer look, or feel, like us.
That is a life-long, difficult task. I trust that life has enough patience.

 

Oct 152011
 
Note: The following will be published in the November/December Issue of Neighbors of Batavia Magazine. It is reprinted with permission.
 
“At the deepest level, there is no giver, no gift, and no recipient…only the universe rearranging itself.”
                                                            Jon Kabat-Zinn
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So too are gifts. I have learned this in many ways, but none more poignant than the hundreds of heart-wrenching moments spent on the suicide hotline with those whose lives became so difficult they contemplated ending them. I am thankful that instead, they reached out for help.
A major portion of training for suicide intervention involves learning how to gently enter a conversation by taking time to connect deeply with the caller, trying to understand what it is about life that makes it so unbearable. We ask, “Why do you want to die?” Through deep listening and empathy—the essence of our natural human ability to truly converse—we build a relationship that allows us, at some sacred moment, to ask, “Would you be willing to share with me, why you want to live?” It is in the ensuing moments that a space opens for a human heart to burst open. A young father in tears says, “I have the most beautiful children in the world. How could I ever hurt them so?” Another will admit “My parents love me so much. If I ended my life, a part of theirs too would end.” Or the person at the other end has already given so much of themselves that they are physically, financially and emotionally drained, and yet they say “I know I still have much to give to the world.” Sometimes a caller will burst into tears and simply exclaim “I don’t want to die!” In those sacred moments it is not only the caller’s heart in which a fissure appears…hearts at both ends of the conversation open to one another. My own tears remind me of my humanity…and gratitude for life.
As a trainer, I have had many volunteers listen as I share moments with humans in need. After one difficult, emotionally-draining call, a trainee said, “Roger, you have a gift.” It was a wonderful, kind and generous thing to say, but if she meant that I have some unique ability, I must demur. It is the essence of what it means to be human to simply sit with another in their moment of sorrow, pain and hurt, and simply listen. We all have that gift, even if some may have forgotten.
Often, after a particularly difficult call—a voyage from treacherous, stormy waters roiled by thoughts of death to a sea ever-so-slightly calmed by a renewed desire for life—a caller will express gratitude for our time together. I will sometimes, in return, tell my fellow voyager they were a gift in my life. It takes them by surprise, and many I fear, don’t believe me. But during our journey they may have reminded me of the life-affirming power of the love between parents and children…or the profundity of the human desire to cling to life…or the elegance and beauty of simple human connection. I am, during those moments, fully immersed in the vulnerable, raw and revealing human condition. It is not possible to take such a journey and return unblessed. The Universe has rearranged itself and I feel far more the recipient of gifts and grace than I am the giver.
Having reached these final words, please know that another gift has just been generously given. Thank you for the gift of sharing these few moments of your life, and perhaps allowing a small crevice to tear into your heart.