Jul 302018
 

One Christmas afternoon many years ago, I answered a call on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) from a young man in middle school. Through oceans of tears he told me how he and his father argued almost constantly. All he wanted to know was whether his father loved him. It broke my heart. We talked a long time that afternoon until he felt he had a way to talk with his father. One of the last things he told me before the call ended was “I know I don’t know you well, but I can tell you I love you.” One of the most perfect gifts I have ever received on that day.

Having spent nearly 3500 hours answering calls on the Lifeline, I have found that helping those who suffer is some of the most life-affirming work any person can be invited to do. On the other side of suffering is a profundity of joy and wisdom unavailable to us without the journey into the depths.

But to truly affirm life, we must affirm all of life…including suffering. We are bereft of wisdom, empathy and love when we go to great lengths to eliminate or hide suffering; we do everything we can to avoid the journey that eventually leads to an understanding of the true nature of the human journey.

When we hide suffering, we concentrate it in hidden worlds. We send the elderly to retirement and nursing communities; the infirmed and disabled are sent to homes. Depression and mental illness are closeted behind the closed doors of professionals. And while these places are caring and wonderful, those outside forget the suffering behind those doors. By concentrating the anguish into those places of caring, those left to attend to the suffering are overwhelmed by the enormity of what we ask of them.

When suffering is hidden, we are left believing it is not normal for humans to suffer. Those who suffer cry in silence, believing it is their unique frailty or weakness that leaves them in pain. We think, “Since others around me are doing well, it’s just be me who is weak and unable to cope with life.” We miss suffering’s doorway into understanding and sagacity.

I wonder how we might change the world if every person were to find even small ways to allow human suffering to reinfuse our lives. What if we began with the courage to let the world see our own vulnerabilities; bring the reality of the human journey back into our lives and communities. What if each of us spent time in places where we have gathered great suffering and gave a moment of respite to the caregivers who are becoming overwhelmed?

Perhaps, in many of those moments, we will each receive gifts of gratitude and wisdom beyond any we have yet known.

Jun 252018
 

Even at the quantum level, as separate and distinct, a single particle has little value. It is only when they are in relationship to other quantum entities that they form the universe.

So too for humanity. Absent our intimate relationship to all things, we are nothing.

As I write, since I feel my fingers on the keyboard, I imagine the computer and me as separate and distinct. However, if I were to pick up a writing instrument to pen these same words, the experience and result would be different. The computer and I co-create. The world is altered by my relationship to even the most inanimate of objects.

As I trek through the woods, a tree ahead appears distinct from me. I know where my body “ends” and the leaves, branches and trunk “begin.” But do I? There is a symbiotic relationship between us. The oxygen I inhale in this moment was likely “exhaled” by that living organism moments ago. The carbon dioxide I release into the atmosphere is vital to the tree’s future. Each season, a tree will take thousands of gallons of water from the soil and release it into the air as water vapor. Those molecules return to Earth as rain, and to me through the foods I eat and the water I drink. The tree and I are in deep relationship; I am biologically part of that tree, and it a part of me.

Even thoughts originating in my cerebral cortex, which my ego insists make me distinct from others, are proof of relationship not separation. Virtually every neural pathway in my brain has been formed through experience with, and mental formulations that originate in, the world outside of me. Every sound I hear, article I touch, morsel I taste and object I see, alters my relationship with the world and changes the entity I thought myself to be.

My emotional being, as well, is intimately related to, and formed by, the world around me. Every story of pain and heartache I encounter in the lives of friends, or from a call to the suicide hotline, alters my emotional sense of the world.

There is little we own…little for which we can take credit. Every word, every thought, every feeling, emerges from ideas and experiences gifted to us by others. Nor is our ability to hold, synthesize and retell them ours to own. They, too, are gifts we have learned from others.

If I search deeply for the “I” I believe is me, I soon discover there isn’t one. The harder I look, the more intense my gaze, the more I discover that everything I think of as me, was formed through an infinity of relationships. I am nothing more than a confluence of influences—simply the intersection of the fields through which this collection of human cells has traveled. I am, simply put, the result of trillions of quantum particles in relationship.

Western culture moves in harmony with the sacredness and importance of the individual. We go to any lengths, and put many in jeopardy, to save one. But the moment I drift from the sacredness of life to the importance of my own, I excise myself from humanity. I allow myself to become isolated, distinct and apart. My thoughts and ideas are wrenched from their rightful place within the ecosystem where they were formed, and where they can be challenged, debated, refined and potentially discarded. Ego takes over and I elevate my ideas to a place of superiority and rightness.

The Sufi mystic and poet Hafitz once said “I am a hole in the flute through which God’s breath flows.” At best, the confluence of thoughts, ideas, and experiences I refer to as myself is no more than a capacity through which the Universe itself is trying to be seen. If I can remain true to simply being the hole, and refrain from imagining myself to be the breath, or the player of the flute, only then is there hope.

May 242018
 

I am dying.

In truth, to the best of my knowledge, I’m a healthy 66-year-old with, I hope, many years ahead. None-the-less, I am dying…and so are you.

Because of cultural biases, I imagine many will find these words deeply disturbing. We resist open discussion of our mortality at great peril. There are, I am told, places where daily meditations on death are encouraged, and those people derive insights and happiness from the practice.

Recently, life encouraged me to think more about death. The week I sat down to write this essay I attended the wake of a friend who died after a fleeting battle with aggressive cancer, I had lunch with another friend who lost his wife of many years after a long fight with COPD, and I was encouraged to read Dying Well: Peace and Possibilities at the End of Life by Ira Byock, M.D. When life sends me a series of such powerful teachers, I prepare for the final exam.

Here’s what I have been reminded. Impermanence and death give life its ultimate meaning.

Suppose someone gave you a magnificent rose; a bloom of such splendor your heart leapt when you first witnessed its beauty. Suppose, in addition, it would never die, nor lose a speck of its glory. How long before your heart no longer even trembled in its presence? A week? Month? Year? Decade? At some point this miracle will have become invisible. Its glory will have faded. Its brilliance gone. Much of what brings joy and ecstasy to our lives derives from the impermanence of all things.

So too with human life. If we had an infinity of days ahead, soon, the miracle of each new day would become invisible. Its glory will have faded. Its brilliance, too, would be gone.

And yet, we not only deny death, we strive for its opposite: eternal youth. We wish for bodies that never decline in strength and vitality. We are on a continual search for remedies and rituals that eliminate all sources of suffering and sorrow. We struggle to hide anything that reminds us of our mortality. Elders are sent to senior communities. The disabled are cared for in institutions. Every ailment life offers demands immediate remedy. We act as if, by hiding all reminders of old age and mortality, death will forget to tap us on the shoulder.

Reading Byock’s work reminds me of the beauty that can flow from old age and even death. In a heart wrenching moment, Byock is speaking to an elder whose life was defined by community service and is now nearing death in full-time hospice care. After a life of caring for others, the dying man now detests the thought of having to be cared for. Byock reminds him:

The social responsibility you have so well exemplified is not limited to doing things for others. Interactions just like this, caring and being cared for, are the way in which community is created. I believe that community, like the word family, is more of a verb than a noun. Community comes about in the process of caring for those in need among us. It’s unfortunate now that you’re getting to see that side of it, but in allowing yourself to be cared for, and being a willing recipient of care, you’re contributing in a remarkably valuable way to the community. In a real sense, we need to care for you. Not just those of us in hospice, but the community we represent.

The most difficult moments of life, especially as we travel with those who are dying, offer vistas from which to view the astonishing panorama of life, its crescendos as well as its depths. I wonder how much wisdom, compassion, and love we extract from our lives as we attempt to extinguish even the thought of old age, suffering, and death.

Contemplation of my mortality and meditations on death have caused many tears to flow over the past week. But they have gifted me with renewed appreciation for the finitude of the days I have left…and I am even more grateful as each one arrives.

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 282017
 

The call came from a young man in a parked car. He was unmerciful. “I am a horrible, evil person. I don’t deserve to live.” I asked if he would be willing to share what led to such fierce condemnation.

Just before he left a nearby store, as he waited in the checkout line, something happened that put him “over the edge.” In a moment of frustration, he turned to the woman behind him in line and let loose an unkind remark. Now, near tears and overwhelmed at having relived the incident, he continued. “It’s not who I want to be! How could I have been so cruel to that poor woman. I hoped I was a better human being than that.” My heart broke for this young man in his deep regret and sadness.

He was a veteran; I was horrified to hear even a few details of what he witnessed while he served his country. I can’t even imagine how I might view the world differently had I lived through the horrors he recounted. Now, he was trying to create a post-military life. He was struggling in a relationship and stressed by his job and mounting bills. His parents were deceased, and he had no friends who could understand what he was going through. He felt totally alone. It became clear he was living his entire life “on the edge.”

When he told me again he felt himself a horrible, evil person, I stopped him with a question. “Do you want to be a person who is humbled and sorry, vowing to try harder next time, or would you rather be a person who dismisses his actions and doesn’t care.” Now in tears, he admitted the depth of his sorrow and how he was determined to try harder in the future. “So, while you disappointed yourself a moment ago—did not live up to the code of conduct you expect of yourself—in this moment, you are living into your highest expectations.” He paused and whispered, “Yeah, I guess I am.”

“Is it also true,” I pressed, “that you learned from this painful experience? Do you think you will move into the next moments of your life a bit more compassionate, generous, and wise?” “I sure hope so. I will certainly try,” he replied.

Before the call ended, I told him how much I grieved for his self-doubt. In the short time we spoke, I had come to know him as a man who wanted so intensely to be perfect. “I am sorry for the mistake you made a few moments ago. Both of us wish it had not happened. But here’s the dirty little secret about being human,” I told him, “you will err again! When we fail, those moments are evidence of our humanness…not our inhumanity.”

Not long after that call, I was having coffee with a young friend who struggled through high school. He was active in Operation Snowball, the teen program for which I volunteer. Now in college, he still struggles. He admitted to the many times he, too, feels he is evil. I know this young man. He has a huge heart, filled with wisdom and compassion for everyone he meets. The word “evil” will never reside in anyone’s description of this young soul…save for his own.

As we spoke, I looked into his eyes and realized he could only witness a mistake as errant because he viewed the world through a heart molded of goodness. A person who is truly evil, would not have eyes that could see evil, nor a heart that could feel it.

In the end, we are, after all, only human. As much as I endeavor to turn every moment into one of worth and value, I know I will fail again and again. But when we are able to witness failures as evidence of our humanness, and endeavor to redeem ourselves in the future, our capacity for compassion, generosity, and wisdom expands. Those moments become proof of our growing goodness, not our inhumanity.

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.

Nov 032016
 

“Your analysis of your life and its failures has the ring of truth since congruent with your self-preoccupation.”

This comment appeared unbidden on my blog. It evoked a great deal of thought and reflection about what occupies my life…and what should.

My first reaction was colored by fear and humiliation, with various shades of self-recrimination. I have a deep-seated, private fear that too much of my life has been about, well, my life.

As I continued to reflect, I recalled that preoccupy means to occupy your mind and life with one thing before you live into and contemplate others. If self-preoccupation means to focus on self before others, at first blush, a person who does that would seem to lack humility and regard for others. Certainly that is worthy of self-condemnation!

However, just after I received this missive from cyberspace, I began reading Martin Buber’s “I and Thou.” Early in the work Buber says “The basic word I-You can only be spoken with one’s whole being.”

Perhaps I am a slow learner, but much of what I know of who I am, and who I am capable of being, has come to me in the most recent years of my life. As I have come to discover fragments that lay shy and hidden for nearly half a century, admittedly, I have spent many hours reflecting on, and writing about, the magnitude, boundaries, and meaning of those newly-exposed facets of self.

Is it possible, I began to wonder, that without sufficient occupation with self before others, I am incapable of speaking with my whole being? Is it possible that, without some amount of self-preoccupation I am speaking largely from a false self? Do I need to know self before I can be in relation to others in the sense Buber suggests?

What I have come to believe is that the more I come to know who I am, and of what I am capable, the more easily I can let go of self-preoccupation and relax into being who I was always meant to become.

Oct 252016
 

Neil Postman once wrote, “Children are the living messages we send to a future we will not see.” When I ask elders if they believe they can change the course of human history, many believe they cannot. I believe they can.

At a recent speaking engagement, an 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?”

I speak to many seniors because 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 24, suicide is often the second leading cause of death. It surprises nearly everyone. The question I am most often asked is “Why?”

There are myriad answers, but a serious and dangerous trend, I believe, is the disconnect that often exists between those I call life’s apprentices and its masters. In ancestral times, children learned to navigate day-to-day life from their parents, but they learned wisdom from their grandparents. The elders told the stories of the tribe, and through those stories they passed along the ideals, principles and values held most sacred. Today, we too often 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.”

My plea to elders—to you, our culture’s wisdom keepers—is that you constantly look for ways to gently and generously touch the lives and hearts 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. Remind our youth that wisdom flows from suffering, and that in its aftermath, life can be, once again, joyful and life-affirming. When one gentleman admitted he, too, contemplated suicide as a youth, I asked if he shared that with his grandchildren. What a gift to learn that grandpa suffered, and still lived a long and valued life.

In an era of decreasing interpersonal connection and increasing focus on screens and technology, the eldest among us know better than most the power of compassionate conversation. After spending thousands of hours counseling teens in leadership forums and on a depression/suicide hotline, I know how much influence seniors can have on future generations. There can be a special relationship between our oldest and youngest generations—one that can energize, heal and inspire.

As Neil Postman suggests, every time we alter the life of a young person, a piece of us lives through them to generations yet unborn…and the course of human history is forever altered.

Jun 282016
 

I began as I always do…“Thank you for calling the depression hotline. How can I help?” The young man at the other end sounded disappointed; he had hoped to discuss, not depression, but anger management.

He had just left a store and was sitting in his car, overwhelmed with anger and self-loathing. Moments earlier, he became frustrated in the checkout line. When his frustration got the best of him, he lashed out at a woman, letting loose some hurtful comments. He was deeply disappointed and judging himself unmercifully. “It’s not the person I want to be,” he explained in a voice near tears. What I could hear was his fear that unreasonable, unrestrained anger defined him. “This is the kind of thing I won’t let go of for weeks,” he admitted.

As we talked, I came to understand the complexity and confusion that defined his life. He faced many difficult decisions and emotional battles, yet had no one he could look to for support. He was an only child, his parents were both gone, and his wife simply did not understand. He felt abandoned and very alone. My heart broke for a young man crying out for some measure of comfort.

No one calls the hotline with profound feelings of self-disappointment and failure if they are not molded from a core of kindness, generosity and humanity. I asked if he would wish to be a person who regrets letting himself and the world down, or if he would rather be a person who acts without humanity and simply does not care? “I want to be the person who is deeply sorry,” he said without hesitation. “So, in this moment, you are being exactly the person you hope to be?” He paused and, with a bit of intrigue, admitted he was.

While he did not understand Buddhism in depth, he had been introduced to it when practicing meditation with a friend from Thailand. Reaching back to the Buddhist aphorism that when the student is ready the teacher will appear, I asked if he had learned something about himself as a result of losing his temper. “If something similar happens in the future, can you imagine being more gentle, kind and loving in that moment?” “Absolutely,” he said. “So you are a wiser, kinder, and more generous human being than you were even a few moments ago?” I pressed. “It never occurred to me to think of it that way,” he confessed, “but maybe I am.”

“I’m not suggesting you should ever intentionally hurt others in order to gain self-awareness, but, and I hate to break it to you, you are after all, only human. You will likely err again.”

In spite of our wish to always be kind, gentle, generous people, and in spite of our most heroic efforts, each of us will fail to live up to our expectations of self, time and time again. We can use moments of failure to define us as inadequate, horrible human beings, or they can afford unique insights into who we actually are, and who we wish to be. As Abraham Lincoln suggested we can allow ourselves be touched by the “better angels of our nature.”

As my new young friend began to grasp the profundity of this ancient wisdom, I could feel the weight of the world lift ever so slightly from his overburdened shoulders. “You’re amazing!” he exclaimed near the end of our time together.

As time has allowed me to reflect, I would wish for one more moment with my young protégé. “First, it is you who is amazing my young friend. I can sense how much you strive for wisdom, goodness and generosity in the face of profound confusion and abject loneliness. Your immense humanity inspires me. Second, I have done little other than share a bit of insight that comes to us through the wisdom of the ages. I am simply thankful for having been able to reach for it when you needed it. Finally, I will not consider myself anything near amazing until I can hear in my own life the voice of self-compassion and love I am asking you to hear in yours.”

As these words appear, I am grateful to have this young man remind me the “better angels of our nature” are always inspiring.

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.