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.

Sep 192012
 

 

A recent, innocent-sounding Facebook message from a friend brought back a childhood memory…one I was not eager to relive. But the experience is teaching me a great deal about what it means to be alive.
The message pointed me to two TED.com talks by Brené Brown. If you have not spent time with TED you are missing an opportunity to become acquainted with some of the world’s great thinkers. “Riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world.”
Brené is a social scientist whose path, much to her chagrin, led her to the study of three of humanity’s most personal, difficult and unpredictable places: guilt, shame and vulnerability.
In one of those talks Brené says guilt is reflected in “I’m sorry, I made a mistake. Shame in “I’m sorry, I am a mistake.” Seldom have I felt the definitional crevasse between two words open so quickly and with such depth. The moment I heard the phrase “I am a mistake” I knew its meaning…what I did not know was the origin of my understanding. At least, not until 12:30 a.m. the following morning.
His name is Kenneth Alan Breisch and, by two years, he is my older brother. Anyone in the family can relate how, as young siblings, we did not get along. We fought frequently enough, and with such malice, I’m quite certain my Mother worried one of us would kill the other. Neither of us ever wanted that, but the stupidity with which we clashed, who knows what might have happened…even by accident. Ironically, I don’t remember a single thing we argued about. Looking back, it was never about the topic; it was always about the relationship.
In one particularly vicious episode, there came a moment when I just wanted him hurt. I recall running away in the middle of the tumult, and chose the door to the garage as my escape. I so wish I had not. There, in the middle of the floor sat the pieces of a dollhouse Ken was carefully crafting for our younger sister, Barb. One wall of the miniature edifice lay vulnerable, leaning up against another. I leapt, and came down on its midsection, breaking it in two. Perhaps I felt that in breaking it, he too would be broken.
Snapping a piece of wood might seem a trivial event to trigger feelings of shame and worthlessness, but life is not defined by the external. It is never the act itself that defines us; it is who we perceive ourselves to be in the moment of acting that burns itself into our psyche and our soul. I can still feel that moment as if in slow motion. As I rose into the air, I felt the mix of my anger, the pride he had in his creativity and workmanship, and the love he felt for Barb—love he carved into every piece of that tiny home. Even as I was momentarily suspended in midair, I knew what I was doing was wrong, hurtful and represented a kind of violence I have seldom felt.
Saying, “I’m sorry, I made a mistake,” does nothing to erase the way I feel about that moment. In spite of the oft-used phrase “God never makes mistakes,” after more than 50 years, I can still hear that tiny voice hinting that perhaps God blinked momentarily and let one slip by. And while it is difficult to admit to such a moment in life, we all have them. And when we do, it is important to quiet that voice that wants to condemn, because it is wrong!
In her wonderful new book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead, Brené says, “Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.”
Join me, if you will, in a toast to ownership of, and engagement with, life.