May 042020
 

What if the answer was deeper, less objective and more nuanced than a simple recounting of the number of times the earth orbited the sun since the day you arrived?

If I asked, instead, how creative you are, I would be confused and disheartened if you answered “5,” “23,” or “99.” Those are meaningless in the context of creativity. I would appreciate hearing that you love to write poetry or music. It would tell me a great deal to hear that your passions are theater and improv.  I could look more deeply into your soul if you say, “While I am not terribly accomplished, I take great pride in some of the pencil sketches I have attempted.” I was touched recently by a caller who told me she loves to write music, especially pieces that erupt from her deep sorrow and invite others to listen deeply to their own with less judgement.

Similarly, if I asked about your generosity, your capacity for love, and the extent to which you are trustworthy and honest, what would you tell me? Should I ask of your wisdom, I would gain insight even if you were to express doubts about the depth and breadth of yours.

With one exception, there is no upper limit on the qualities that define our character. Our admiration for another is in direct proportion to the extent of their creativity, generosity, love, trustworthiness, honesty, and wisdom.

The one exception, or course, is our culture’s, oft unspoken, acceptable upper limit on the number of years we have lived. There is no remark about creativity, generosity, love or wisdom equivalent to being “over the hill” regarding age.

What would it mean if the answer to how old you are was similarly nuanced? What if, instead, how old you are is defined by the character you cultivated during the years you have lived? To which, of course, there is no limit.

What if, instead of telling me your age, you were willing to admit you are old enough to know the limits of your knowledge; that you are coming to understand the power of questions and are less compelled by the veracity of opinions—yours and others. To what extent would you be willing to share you are old enough to focus more on what is left for you to be, and less about what is left for you to do?

I would love to hear you have learned the power of compassion and how you might use yours to ease the journey of others; that you are discovering, when you are with another during a time of deep sadness and grief, it is not within your power to fix, but absolutely within your power to be fully present—and that that is enough. Might you also admit you have less fear about your legacy and are taking comfort in knowing that such a thing is unknowable.

Should we meet sometime soon, and I ask how old you are, know that I do not care a whit about the years you have lived. What I care to discern is the extent to which you have fully lived during your many revolutions of the planet Earth, and developed character worthy of the time you have been given.

Apr 132020
 

“I would steal the stress and abuse from your life in an instant if I could, but I cannot. However, has the chaos you are facing taught you something about the human journey that you can use to help others?” I have asked some version of this question to hundreds of people over the past 17 years. The most typical response is, “You have no idea!” I recall asking one woman, who was bone weary from a life of giving and having been taken advantage of, why she might want to go on. Her response filled my heart. “I still have so much left to give.”

If you ask people to recount the most learningful, creative moments of their lives, a surprising number of those stories will have arisen from times when life seemed out of control. It is during those times, when life sidles from order into chaos, we are called to be maximally creative. A spouse is unexpectedly gone, and the broken family must discover new ways to survive. An unforeseen chronic disease suddenly invades, and life abruptly pivots. Loss of a career or life goal demands we see the world anew.

In the 1990s, when Dee Hock was writing his extraordinary book, “Birth of the Chaordic Age,” he thought a great deal about that edge where nature is maximally creative, where chaos and order suddenly overlap. He searched all the major languages for a word to describe that intersection, but none was to be found. So he borrowed the first syllables from “chaos” and “order” to create the word “chaord.” If you wish to find the emergence of creativity and innovation, you simply need to look for chaords, and you needn’t go far. Except for the species Homo sapiens, every other species in nature experiences the intersection of order and chaos every single day.

Covid-19 has thrown the entirety of the human species into that overlap of order and chaos. Out of the chaordic experience of the last several months, I’ve been witness to innovation, creativity and emergence of new ideas unlike anything I have ever experienced in any comparable span of time. I am heartbroken for the millions who are finding the future filled with anxiety and pain, yet I am astounded by the generosity and creativity that has emerged to try to ease that pain. Money being raised to fill food pantries…volunteers shopping for the elderly and infirmed so they may remain safe…neighborhoods coming together on balconies to remind us of what we have, as to opposed to what we are losing…millions at home sewing masks…artists of all ilks flooding social media with astonishing music and beauty…essential services pivoting to provide and help us remain safe…and, factories instantly repurposed to produce PPE and respirators. The global eruption of generosity, love, even intimacy, is palpable.

Around the globe, humans are doing everything possible to edge out of this chaord and return to our normal sense of safety, control and order. As much as anyone, I grieve the losses, and fear the future we face, as long as the coronavirus reigns rampant. And yet, I feel a paradox in the offing. Will we, even to some small extent, grieve the loss of generosity, love and intimacy not nearly so palpable when life does return to “normal?”

Dec 052019
 

At first, it ended tragically.

At a recent Operation Snowball* retreat, the teens wrote a skit entitled “Asking for Help.” In the first performance, one of the teens was struggling mightily with challenges life mercilessly hurled in her path. Despite her overwhelming heartbreak and pain, she never asked for help. Those around her, even if they noticed, did little in response to her subtle cries for love and support. Alone and confused, without the comfort of family and friends, her life ended in tragedy.

I was asked to facilitate the ensuing discussion, so I rose and asked the eighty or so teens what went wrong. “What would you have done differently?” I inquired. They knew she needed help and were saddened that those around her let her down. The failure brought some in the room to tears.

We talked about the many ways we can pick up on a cry for help. Obviously, when friends tell us they are in trouble, it’s easy. But often, cries are silent and subtle. “If we see unexpected changes in mood, it would be important to reach out,” one teen suggested. Another counseled “If a friend’s habits change unexpectedly, it is never a mistake to ask if they are okay.” I reminded them, even if we see a stranger who appears to be sad, we can always offer assistance or just a smile. “Remember, when someone needs support, you are not responsible to solve their problems. You only have to help get them to someone who can.”

The actors replayed the final moments of the skit. But this time, the struggling teen’s friends picked up on her sadness and anxiety and insisted she come with them to get help. That version was truly lifesaving.

As we discussed the second performance, we agreed it is difficult to ask for help, especially for teens. We recounted many reasons. “I’m the strong one. If my friends and family find out I am struggling…they’d be disappointed.” “My father is out of work and we have no insurance.” “I don’t want to be a burden on others.” “My parents are under a lot of stress because my uncle is dying from cancer.” “My sister is already in counseling. I can’t tell my parents I need it too.” “My mother is a single parent. She is stressed enough already.” The list is endless.

But then, one teen spoke up. “I think many people, especially teens, don’t ask for help because they don’t think they deserve it.” That nearly brought me to my knees.

An hour before the session began, as I reflected on the upcoming events, I recalled a conversation with a friend 25 years earlier. He asked if I believed in fairness. The question was startling, nevertheless, I assured him I did. “If you were at a dinner and the dessert tray had only two pieces of the pie you wanted, and one was clearly larger that the other, which would you take?” Since the question didn’t require deep contemplation. I told him I’d likely take the smaller one. “Always?” he pressed. This time I thought, but only for a moment. “Yes, probably.” “Ah,” he shot back, “then you really don’t believe in fairness, do you?”

I repeated that ancient exchange to the students and adults in front of me. I then recounted the many reasons we don’t ask for help. Is it possible, I asked, that, when life is dispensing love and support, we’re too willing to give others the larger slice? “It’s unreasonable,” I acknowledged, “to always be first in line, but, if we continually put ourselves last, perhaps we really don’t believe in fairness.”

We tell ourselves it is better to give than to receive. I believe that. But, if we believe in offering love, kindness, and generosity to all humans, then doesn’t the person we see every morning in the mirror, deserve to receive an equal share from us as well?

*Operation Snowball is a teen leadership program for which I am an adult volunteer.

Dec 052017
 

How should we understand human suffering?

I received a call from a young man who began the conversation by declaring “I have a gun in my lap and when we finish talking, I intend to use it.” This young man’s life, and sense of self, were defined by exploitation. He had been abused in every way imaginable, and the assaults came at him from all directions. Now, in his early 20s, he felt used and useless…his life had no apparent value. There was nothing left to do but end the anguish.

After we talked for some time, and I began to understand the depth of his desperation and hopelessness, I asked if I could share a story from the Hasidic tradition. He accepted the invitation.

As the story is told, a disciple asked his Rebbe, “Why does the Torah tell us to write the holy words on our hearts, why doesn’t it tell us to write them in our hearts?” The Rebbe replied, “That’s because, as we are, our hearts are closed, so we write them on our hearts and there they stay…until one day our heart breaks and the holy words fall in.”

After recounting that tale, I told the young caller how I wished I could take away his unfathomable pain, but I was helpless to dull even the sharpest of its edges. Knowing his heart had been shattered hundreds of times, I asked if he learned anything about the human journey that would enable him to help others. “Have there been holy words that have fallen into your heart?”

I was stunned by his reply. He told me story after story of his ability to save the lives of other young men who suffer the kind of abuse he experienced; he truly understood the depth of their searing pain. When he finally grasped his incredible capacity for empathy, and his ability to save others, he put the gun away.

When our hearts break, holy words do, indeed, fall in. We learn something important about the nature of the human journey. In moments of heartache and pain, if we are open to the lessons, we gain in our capacity for kindness, generosity, caring, empathy…and love. Our hearts grow in those moments and we are unexpectedly more human, not less. We are broken open, not broken. I have been the beneficiary of the profound wisdom that emanates from human suffering hundreds of times on the suicide hotline.

Yet, we live in a culture that wants us to believe suffering can be made optional, or, if not, at least veiled and secreted away. Anything that reminds us of our mortality, recalls the fragility of our lives, is sequestered. We are flooded with images and products that hint at the prospect of everlasting youth…and an end to suffering. When we do suffer, we wear carefully crafted masks behind which we hide, lest others learn of our weaknesses and failures. Those who find themselves in crises are often deserted by friends who are frightened by the prospects of their own mortality.

We know, at some very deep level, much of humanity’s most profound wisdom has come from individual and collective suffering. I am reminded of how Joseph Campbell taught us the value of the heroes’ journey…the descent into Hades, only to reemerge, imbued with greater humanity and wisdom.

Because we are unpracticed at being in the midst of suffering, it takes effort to overcome our fear. But when we do, our hearts, too, will break, the holy words will fall in, and we will learn even greater kindness, generosity, caring, empathy…and love. It is a difficult, yet essential, part of the human journey. Those moments plant within us essential seeds of human wisdom.

Sep 152017
 

A friend recently left her youngest son at college, and is struggling with the emotions erupting inside her. I was reminded of a piece I wrote many years ago when we took our son to college. (Posted previously in November of 2016.)

“What’s happen’n here is a long goodbye.”
                                          Country artists Brooks & Dunn

Why, I wonder, is saying goodbye sometimes so very difficult?

When we took our son, David, to college many years ago, leaving him was harder than I imagined it would be. The morning after we returned home, I awoke early and could feel his absence weighing heavily on my heart. What made me so sad was the realization that the young man I would encounter in the future would be a different person. He would always be the son I love, but he would be my son in a different way—increasingly he would become be his own person. What’s confusing is that my sorrow did not erupt from a desire to have him remain the boy I had known. Quite the contrary, I was in awe of the thoughtful, responsible, creative, enthusiastic young man he was becoming. I was so amazed that I often kidded him by telling him I was sure the hospital must have given us the wrong child!

So if the deep sadness does not come from saying goodbye to the young boy as he became a man, then from where did it emanate? What I was coming to realize is that there was a second person to whom I needed to bid farewell—a person far more difficult to leave behind. I had to, I came to discover, say goodbye to the father I knew myself to be. I would always be available when he needed me, but the simple truth is that he would need me less. I would be less important—or maybe important in a different way—as he began to make his own way in the world.

And while I could love, and be inspired by, the young man we would welcome into the family, I was less comfortable with, or confident in my ability to welcome, the father who must show up. I could no longer treat David as if he were merely revision 1.01 of the boy who left us. But could I stop myself from offering the unsolicited advice that seemed so necessary when he was younger? How could I give up the fear that if I don’t watch over him—if I didn’t co-manage his life—that the suffering he would inevitably face would not destroy him? Where would I find the strength to know that he really did have the wisdom to create his own life?

Saying adieu to the father who is over-protective, the one essential to his son’s success, the one who must protect him from the oft-scary world…that is a really long goodbye.

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.

Jun 032017
 

The caller could barely begin the conversation. “I feel as though I’m having a nervous breakdown,” he said in a voice trembling with fear, sadness and deep pain.

In the next few moments, his heart broke open. A woman he has cared for…a person for whom he has done a great many things over four years…recently turned on him and said some hateful, hurtful things. “She actually told me she wished I was dead!” Because he had had such trust in her, not only was his heart broken, he felt ruined by her words. His self-esteem was shattered. He felt himself, in that moment, to be a less-human being than before she tore him asunder.

As we continued, he gave me a glimpse into his life. He told me of the many things he did for his woman-friend and her sons over the years, and how much it hurt to have those things simply tossed aside. He told me he was fiercely loyal to friends. “If you’re my friend, and you need me, I’ll be there in a minute.” He told me of the hours he volunteers at a local not-for-profit. “Over the years, we have been able to help thousands of people. I love that work.” He even shared some of the success he has had in business.

As we talked, I felt a huge discrepancy between his core goodness, and the person he feared he might be based on the life-draining labels he heard spewed in his direction. I asked if he could acknowledge his kindness and generosity despite his fear and confusion. “Aren’t you really a good person?” I asked. “I’m far from perfect. I’ve made lots of mistakes,” he replied. “We all do,” I said, “but it sounds like you do what’s right as often as you can.” The longer we talked, the stronger his voice became. Fear and sadness slowly faded, and a sense of calm emerged. There were even a few moments of joy tinged with laughter. I asked again if he might witness the core of goodness that was the foundation of his character. “It’s hard, but I think so.”

As is so often the case, his openness, candor, and willingness to share the often-immense difficulties of the human journey, felt like an enormous gift in my life. When I told him he was a gift, he paused. “That is one of the nicest things anyone has said to me.” With that, I thought our time together had ended. However, not 20 minutes later, he called again. “I have a close friend who has supported me so many times over the years. I remembered what you told me, so I had to call him and tell him what a gift he has been in my life. He, too, was touched.”

The giving and receiving of gifts—especially the hundreds we give and receive every day out of love—is one of the most powerful forces in the Universe.

Many years ago, the author Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote, “At the deepest level, there is no giver, no gift, and no recipient…only the universe rearranging itself.” The Universe is also rearranged by anger, fear, and hatred, but the one that emerges from the giving and receiving of loving gifts is the one I hope to inhabit until my time on this Earth has come to an end.

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.

Sep 172016
 

The 14-year-old who called the hotline last week was in desperate need of healing and self-absolution.  I realize now, the seed of the conversation we shared was planted nearly 40 years ago.

After finishing my master’s degree, I was invited to teach mathematics at The Hun School, a private, preparatory school just outside of Princeton, NJ. Teaching encompassed four years of my life, but, for my students, I will have been their math teacher for the entirety of theirs. When you fail in many endeavors, there is often a remedy. When you fail as a teacher, your students live with your ineptitude until the day they pass from this Earth.

I often felt inept…unpolished…incapable of reaching the students who struggled mightily with algebra, geometry and trigonometry. Often, they needed a guide with great patience, and I came up short. Those failures weigh heavily even 40 years later.

A note recently left on my website, reminded me of moments in which, perhaps, I was less inept. I was touched by the memories it evoked. The missive was from Hossein Haj-Hariri, who arrived from Iran in his junior year. I could present him as proof of my success as a teacher, but Hossein would have excelled with nearly any teacher. He worked diligently, but he had an innate aptitude for mathematics. He and a few of his peers easily opened their minds to the concepts behind the numbers and the theory. Hossein subsequently spent 28 years on the faculty at University of Virginia, and was recently named dean of the College of Engineering and Computing at The University of South Carolina.

In spite of their innate ability, I remember one or two moments when Hossein and friends came with a question, standing on the precipice of understanding, but not quite over the edge. In those moments, we would engage with the mathematics; when understanding eluded us we would ask each other if we could possibly see the problem another way. As we challenged each other to look anew, there would come a moment when their eyes—or mine—would light up as we completed a critical neural pathway and a new piece of the puzzling language of mathematics fell into place. Those moments too, I remember 40 years later.

I had no idea how central to my very being the idea of seeing another way would become. This week, the young boy who called the suicide hotline was wracked by disease. The ensuing bullying from both peers and self, demarcated a life of failure, pain and self-loathing. And yet, every story he recounted spoke of his caring, generosity and fierce defense of loved ones. Late in our time together, I asked him to describe something, anything, wonderful within. “I can’t,” he told me in a soft voice. “I hate everything about myself.” So I began to recount his stories of caring, generosity and love, and asked if he could witness, not shortcomings, but his huge heart. “It’s your superpower,” I suggested. I also told him I loved him, and who he is in the world. Near tears he told me those were words he seldom hears. “Would you be willing to see your life through your enormous heart?” I asked just before the call ended. “Thank you, I will try,” were his final words to me.

So thank you Dr. Haj-Hariri for helping me discover the power of the simple question, “Could we see it another way?” You helped me ease the horrific pain of a young man whose enormous heart lay hidden.

Apr 042016
 

There is a Buddhist tale about parents who asked a local monk to teach their child to live free of anger and hatred. “Of course,” replied the monk. “Bring your child back in two years.” Two years later they returned and instruction commenced. Confused, they asked why the teachings had to wait. “Because,” the monk replied, “First, I had to learn to live free of anger and hatred.”

At Operation Snowball, the teen program for which I volunteer, we use the acronym IALAC: I Am Lovable And Capable. About a month before our Spring retreat the Teen Directors asked me to speak about IALAC for the 130 or more teens who would attend. The moment they asked, I recalled the Buddhist story and my heart skipped a beat. “I must first come to believe I am lovable,” I thought “and I don’t have two years to discern the truth.”

Everyone has moments in which the reflection they witness in the mirror of life is of a person they find difficult to love. I recall many failures as a parent, when ego and insecurity prevented me from being the kind, gentle and wise guide I hoped to be for my children; failures as a husband, when attending to my agenda left my wife feeling abandoned and lonely; failures in my career, where I anticipated becoming a captain of industry…forty years later my resume is a train-wreck by most traditional measures.

Father, Husband, Provider. If these roles define a man’s life, and you feel you have failed, it can be challenging to look in the mirror and perceive a person who is lovable.

As the weeks slipped by, I struggled to find the lens through which I could see myself as unconditionally lovable. And because teens are still apprentices at life, their mistakes, hurts and scars can seem crushingly painful, and leave them feeling hopelessly unloved and unlovable. If I struggle to see myself as unconditionally lovable, how could I provide them a lens of lovability through which they could perceive themselves?

At some moment the path opened. The teens themselves are, and have been for ten years, the lens through which I can see myself as lovable. I have hundreds of handwritten notes—words that leave me humbled and in tears—in which teens have held up unblemished mirrors to help me see what they see. Their view can be a more genuine reflection than mine because, in my mirror, the brutal voice of failure vies for dominance over the quiet, often shy and cautious voice that knows I am lovable.

So when the time came to speak, after I described the critical self-reflection to which I am often witness, I asked, by show of hands, how many have seen something in me that is lovable. The response, in all humility, brought me to my knees. “What if,” I suggested, “I step out of my body, leave Roger here in front, and come sit amongst you.” I made a gesture of stepping out of my own body, and I sat down in their midst.

As I sat, surrounded by these loving young truth-tellers, looking up at the virtual person I left standing before us, it became easier to see a man who—in spite of his failures, missteps and scars—cares deeply and tries mightily. Suddenly I was able to glimpse a man who is lovable.

So I returned to the question that began our time together: Are we, each of us, lovable and capable of love? “Of that,” I said “there is no doubt. From the moment you were conceived, in every moment since, and in each moment into the future, you are infinitely lovable and capable of love.” “It is,” I continued, “fundamentally the wrong question. The real question is, ‘Are you willing to find the courage to listen and believe?’”

When life leaves us questioning our worth—leaves us feeling hopeless—it is helpful to find a truth-teller…someone who loves us and will recount honestly what they see in us. All that remains is to look, with an open heart, into the reflection they so generously offer, silence the voice of denial, and summon the courage to listen and believe.