Aug 132015
 

The temporary nature of life exposes its most enduring value and meaning. A delicate, fragile piece of porcelain has more value because we realize the ease with which its beauty might be ripped from our lives at any moment. A vessel made virtually unbreakable would seldom etch the same splendor in our hearts.

So it is with the delicate nature of those who know us and accept us for who we are. Their value in our lives is magnified by its impermanence; the magnificence of their unquestioning, unconditional love comes, in part, from its temporary, fragile nature.

If we could, would we return to an earlier time and cast-off the love, connection, and intimacy they offered in order to escape the pain and heartache that flows from having lost them? The answer is simple, but causes many to pause momentarily, especially in those moments when the sadness is fresh and the grief raw and unrelenting. In the end, we know that deep grief, and the tears that flow from it, are the price we pay for love.

It is said that a river cannot be halted in order to study its nature. When we fall under the spell of terrifying rapids, the melodious gurgle of a brook, or the majesty of water in free fall over a cliff, it is the impermanence, transformation and change that bind us to its beauty. If the current flowed forever without unexpected turns, protruding rocks, and the pull of gravity, we would never discern its power, grace, and beauty.

Life itself is much like the ever-changing, impermanent flow of a river, but in life, we find ourselves unable to witness its power and magnificence from afar. If we could, we might see the glory and majesty in a whole new way. Might the unexpected turns, the obstacles that rudely and harshly change our course, the free falls into an unknown abyss, contain a majesty we simply cannot comprehend as we are buffeted and battered by life?

With the perspective of time–more than ten years after his passing–I see the confluence and influence of my father’s life with so much gratitude and love. I see him for the gracious, kind, caring person he strove to be, and forgive him for the times he was so very human…and fallible.

Regardless of our beliefs about what transpires after this time on Earth, each of us is granted a kind of immortality here, in this place. Neil Postman once said “Children are the messages we send to a time we will not see.” By living the messages of those who have come before us, we alter the flow of human history in their name. Even when life is punctuated with turns, boulders and freefalls, with perspective, we witness the river of life as a thing of true beauty, understand that impermanence imbues it with majesty, and know that those we have loved and lost helped make it so.

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.

Oct 042014
 

Most writing is the scratching of an insatiable itch for immortality. Alas, the more written, the greater the itch.

Dee Hock

Since reading Dee’s most recent work, Autobiography of a Restless Mind, I have been pondering the human desire for immortality, and wondering if, perhaps, we understand immortality inaccurately.

2.2 million books were published last year. As of this writing, 152 million blogs pepper the Internet. Two are added every second…63 million per year. WordPress, one of many blogging sites, documents 2 million posts every day. And these figures ignore journals, periodicals, newspapers and editorials.

If Dee is correct, the itch for immortality is indeed insatiable and growing at an unprecedented rate.

It would be convenient to claim I am unmotivated by Dee’s itch, but it would be disingenuous. Who amongst us, when mortality tugs at our coattails, can make an honest claim to nary a qualm? Has it always been so?

The period from 800 B.C.E to 200 B.C.E., often referred to as the Axial Age, was a time of great change. Prior to the Axial Age it was impossible to imagine individuals separate from their tribe. With no stored wealth, and each day’s survival in question, the effort of every member was essential. If the tribe was to survive, each person’s gifts and capacities had to be discovered, honored and engaged. Every person mattered.

With the advent of the Axial Age, cities emerged and wealth accumulated. Families and individuals could, for the first time, survive independent of the tribe. Wealth lubricated, if you will, families from many of the day-to-day terrors that made the lives of their ancestors so precarious. But with life becoming safer and a tad easier, individuals and their unique gifts became less important for survival. Perhaps for the first time in our history, individuals might have begun to wonder if they were necessary.

The Axial Age was also an astounding time in the development of human wisdom. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle laid the groundwork for much of the West’s rational, scientific views. The Buddha proposed his ideas for reincarnation, and an end to human suffering through non-attachment. Jainism gave us the principles of non-violence, karma and asceticism. The Upanishads, the Tao, the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Bhagavad Gita were written during this period. Confucius, Archimedes, Elijah and Isaiah are also considered to be of this age.

Is it coincidence that, facing the possibility this life might be meaningless, desires for immortality emerged, and definitions and descriptions flourished? For Buddhists, immortality was realized by reincarnation through many lives, eventually reaching an unending state of Nirvana. The monotheistic religions (Judaism, Islam and Christianity) found comfort in a single life with a heavenly destination in which we could spend eternity in bliss reunited with our maker. The Greeks found a form of immortality through thumos, recognition and fame that would secure a person’s place on the lips and in the hearts of future generations.

If there is any veracity to the claim that riches and an easy life can make self-worth elusive, our craving for immortality is exacerbated by our unimaginable collective wealth, and our belief that medicine, science and technology will make life safer, easier and perhaps even everlasting. It’s paradoxical I admit, but, as life becomes safer and easier, could it mean that each of us matters even less? And if so, might the quest for life’s meaning become excruciatingly difficult, elusive and painful?

I know this: I talk to many people for whom life has become unbearable for one simple reason—their life has no meaning. They have given up the search for the gifts that make them unique and magnificent. The tribe no longer needs them.

So I wonder. Is it possible the only immortality—unending existence—that truly matters, is in discovering our gifts and being fully exhausted of them by life’s end…knowing they have been given in service to the human tribe. Perhaps immortality and humility emerge from gently etching our irreplaceable footprint on the human journey as the tribe searches for a sustainable path into the future.

Aug 172013
 
Note: I wrote the following piece for the Batavia Chamber of Commerce newsletter, but thought it might be of interest to the readers of my blog
I’ve been accused of focusing too much on images of death, but bear with me, you just might find the questions I am about to ask confusing and irritating enough to be useful.
What if the greatest challenge to your organization is that everyone expects it to be immortal?
We race books like Built to Last to the best seller list because we expect organizations and institutions to be impervious to the vagaries of imperfect economies and unpredictable politics.
To be sure, we are in awe of human creations that survive the limits of our fragile lives. I recall the wonderment of experiencing a few of the celebrated cathedrals of Europe.
But what if organizations are more valuable as organic, less stable, human creations? Consider human mortality. (Here is where I estrange those troubled by thoughts of death). It is no secret that, as people age, they become more aware of their mortality and begin to ask questions about what their time here might have meant. Conversely, if we were immortal, the need to make every passing moment a thing of beauty becomes less imperative. There would be plenty of time tomorrow—and the infinite tomorrows beyond that—to accomplish something of depth and meaning.
So what about your organization. I assume it exists to accomplish something of depth and meaning. To create products and services that add value to peoples’ lives…offer meaningful employment…make the world better, safer or more beautiful…or just to create wealth (however you define that easily misunderstood word).
Does it change the mission, vision and values you hold dear if you knew the institution you are building will, with no possibility of reprieve, cease to exist in five years? Even if it doesn’t alter the words, does it change their urgency? Does your heart skip a beat as you ponder how you must now turn those words into results prior to some uncompromising deadline? What if, as a result, mission, vision and values became more important than next quarter’s net income?
These questions occurred to me on one of my many journeys afoot. As the images flew, I began to ask how mortality might change my view of the Batavia Chamber. How might our goals and priorities change if the Board had to disband the Chamber at age 65 in the year 2018?
The Chamber’s purpose is to create a dynamic culture where business and community enhance one another. How might we renew our effort if we had only five years. Our vision is for Batavia to be a destination for people to grow themselves, their family, their business and their community. If that became the Chamber’s destination in a mere five years, what must we do differently this afternoon…and tomorrow? With a mission to advocate for, build relationships with, and educate our members for the benefit of the community, how should we redouble our efforts and set different priorities?
I know…this all has little meaning because our institutions are build to last. But you are not, so from your perspective, the organization you now run or support will only last a few more years. With that awareness to the fore, is there something you might do differently knowing it truly is a matter of life & death?