Jan 292016
 

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.

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.

Sep 252011
 
These words are for an amazing cohort of fellow travelers on this journey we call life. Today more than 40 teens and adults will gather to begin preparing for the Fall 2011 Greater Fox River Valley Operation Snowball weekend in November. If we are open to it, today also offers us an opportunity to begin preparing, not just for a 3-day event, but for an entirely new, extraordinary future. If I am truly open, today holds the possibility of a new me.
A phrase I contemplate often, one that can easily bring me to tears, is “youth are the messages we send to a future we will never see.” Why does it tear at my heart? Partly because it reminds me that someday, in the natural course of events, I will no longer be here for my children, Kathryn and David, in their time of need…and I will not be here for the youth of Operation Snowball who so often need a kind word or hug to let them know that, in spite of their pain, they will be okay.
But I wonder if the tears come from a deeper place. I wonder if the tears don’t emanate from my deep sense of inadequacy. Who am I to think I am nearly wise enough to teach these beautiful young people even a small portion of what they need to know as they navigate the oft-treacherous rapids flowing toward the future? Who am I to think that I am capable of passing along a single skill they will need to live into a future where they can discover fulfillment and a share of happiness? Who am I to think I have nearly the capacity to give them even a small portion of the love they ache to find in their lives?
The reality is that these are actually the wrong questions. These questions put me at the center of their future. These questions hold out the possibility that I have their answers, when, in fact, I often cannot even answer the deepest questions in my own life.
So what might be better questions? Here are a few that come to mind: How can I model for these ambassadors to the future the search for self? How can I, by honestly revealing the hills and valleys of my path, help them know the path they are on is the right path, even though, for so many, their path is infinitely more difficult than mine? How can I learn to find and bow to the sacredness inside me, and by so doing, point the way to their learning of their own wholeness? How can I learn that the answers I seek about life in general, and my life in particular, are here inside my heart and that if I trust, they will reveal themselves? How can I help others discover they too already have the answers they seek?
I titled this piece “On the Eve of an Inventure”—a word I borrowed from author and friend, Richard Leider. An inventure is a journey inward…a sacred look inside my being. An inventure is a discovery of who I am, so who I truly am can manifest itself in the world.
So as we begin, I bow to each of you, my fellow travelers. I bow to your goodness…I bow to your humanity…I bow to your wisdom. And I ask for your love and support as I try to bow to myself.