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.

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.

Apr 062017
 

One evening this past February, at Operation Snowball, the teen leadership program for which I volunteer, a young woman approached me about a deep sadness that momentarily infused her life. I spoke with her briefly, but the appropriate words eluded me in that moment. The next morning I sent her the following note.

Gianna,

Let me begin by telling you how touched I was you would reach out to me last night. I feel blessed by your invitation. At the same time, it feels as though, in the moment, I was unclear and inarticulate. I have reflected on our time together and would like to share some of those reflections.

The deep sadness you described is indeed difficult. When we are in that place, we wish so much to be free of the pain. I have spent hundreds of hours on the suicide hotline with people who are trying to escape the gulf they feel in their lives. In those moments I will often ask, “Is there something you are learning from this pain that helps you better understand the human journey?” The typical response is “You have no idea!” When our hearts break, the holiness of the human journey enters it in a new way and our hearts grow. In those moments, we become more able to help others on their journey.

It is sometimes helpful to think of all the emotions that populate our lives—sadness, joy, anger, fear, etc.—as passing clouds. They come into our purview, and whether we want them to stay or not, they pass away. It is the definition of being human. The journey is to notice them and see what they have to teach us about being human. If we view them as teachers, we can also see each and every one as gifts. We can be thankful for them…and not grow attached to them. They will go…and one day return to teach us yet again.

Gianna, you (and your sister) are amazing gifts in the lives of so many of us. Your joy, your kindness, the love you have for each other, changes each of us for the better. You inform us in your own unique way, about the miracle of the human journey. As long as you continue to grow into the extraordinary young woman you are becoming, and are willing to let your life speak to others, then let the sadness simply evaporate. That cloud, too will pass.

Finally, this morning as I was reflecting on our time together, I was reading The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, a conversation between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Two quotes from that profound volume informed this missive. The first was from a psalm: “Who passing through the vale of tears makes it a well.” When we allow the tears and sadness to break open our hearts and enlarge their capacity, we become a well from which others can gain wisdom and strength.

The second is, “And so I would say to everyone: You are made for perfection, but you are not yet perfect. You are a masterpiece in the making.”

When I looked deeply into the eyes of the extraordinary young woman in front of me last night, it became clear to me that you are a masterpiece in the making. I am blessed by you in my life.

Hugs,

Roger

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.

Sep 012016
 

I’m just trying to save lives, but I’m handcuffed. It breaks my heart, and leaves me feeling set aside.

Youth suicide is epidemic, often the second leading cause of death for those between 15 and 24. No one understands why, and there are many valuable efforts to curb the onslaught. But what we are doing is clearly not enough.

As I have traveled the country, speaking to anyone who will listen, I have begun to focus on the disconnect between our elders—those we always looked upon as our wisdom keepers—and our youth—those I might call apprentices on the human journey. In the skilled trades, apprentices learn from those most experienced; those who have learned their craft through myriad successes and plentiful failure. In life, the masters are those who have deep experience in being human. They have traversed the paths of joy, heartbreak, creation, devastation, love and pain. They know the profound wisdom that comes from living…and only from living.

I recently proposed a gathering of elders and youth for a period of dialogue. My hope was to help our apprentices learn that, in spite of the tremendous pain life can provide, if we travel with others who can help us tease it out, on the other side is joy, wisdom and beauty.

The plan was to bring youth into local retirement communities. The elders are there, and they typically have access to comfortable venues in which to share hopes, fears and dreams.

What I came to discover is that these organizations simply will not allow such meetings to take place. The legal and insurance liabilities are simply too high.

Allowing youth, some of whom may be at risk, into the facility is considered too great a risk should something untoward happen. I get it. I really do. I certainly do not want anyone harmed. But I also believe that real life has risk embedded in it. If we refuse any kind of risk, we leave great wisdom behind.

The second reason is more personal. I have no credentials to facilitate the dialogue. 3000 hours on a suicide hotline and 11 years with teens at Operation Snowball are admirable, but not credible. This too I understand. But it hurts.

I’ll get over it. I will find others ways to combat the epidemic if youth suicide, but for now I am going to honor my broken heart.

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.

Jun 082016
 

Note: The following will be published in the July/August issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

I thought it was a small world in 1964, but I had no idea.

When I was 13, the family visited the New York World’s Fair. There is so much I remember: seeing New York City for the first time, standing in front of Michelangelo’s Pietà (its first trip outside the Vatican), the Unisphere (which was a key backdrop at the end of the movie “Men in Black”), General Motor’s Futurama, Disney’s “Audio-Animatronics” and so much more.

But the experience most deeply etched in my psyche was the ride through Pepsi’s salute to UNICEF and the World’s Children. Created by Disney for the Pepsi pavilion, “It’s a Small World,” subsequently became a permanent ride at all the Disney theme parks. The title song played continuously as we passed hundreds of dolls depicting children from around the world.

The ride, did indeed, make it seem a small world—seeing so many places and cultures in just a few moments. What was beyond anyone’s imagination was the extraordinary way in which the world would actually shrink in the ensuing fifty years.

One Saturday morning not long ago, I received a Facebook message from an old friend who knows of my work in suicide prevention. She expressed concern for a young man writing on social media about ending his life. “I don’t know him personally, but I am connected with him through the Unitarian Church. If he is willing, would you friend him on Facebook and chat?” Within minutes this young man and I were actively messaging. He was open and honest about the difficulties he faced and the reasons for believing there was no reason to go on.

After perhaps an hour of messages instantly traversing the web, I thought it might be easier to talk. It was when I asked if he would call me that the microscopic nature of the planet became palpable. “No problem sir, but sorry to say I can’t call probably since I’m in Pakistan and I hardly afford my cigarettes.”

I stood, mesmerized by the words on my smartphone. I was communicating instantaneously with a young man who lives on the other side of the planet. In the Disney “small world” of 1964, it took several minutes to move from country to country; in this moment it took mere seconds to traverse the globe. A young Pakistani and an aging American found themselves touching each other’s hearts across generations, cultures and thousands of miles. In spite of the abyss defined by age, background, culture and genealogy, the two of us were scarcely separated emotionally, politically, ethically, intellectually, and philosophically. I was touched by his wisdom, insight, generosity and self-perception.

“I am specializing in English Literature but have been a student of comparative religions, philosophical logic, kinesics, parapsychology, metaphysics, ethics and general philosophy. People tell me I’m weird because I read so much. I don’t like stupidity but I encounter it everywhere. Not many people understand me because they are stuck in trivialities like talking on girls, movies, apps, cars, wishes, etc. I find more important things to care about, like, in my country, little children beg in streets. News doesn’t show that. Child labor. Incompetent teachers. People killing people in name of religions. Hatred. Racism. It all drives me mad.”

It is always my hope to help those who feel valueless to find some, even small, measure of self-worth. After we had spent time getting to know one another and building a meaningful relationship, I sent the following message, “The world desperately needs your insight and compassion. I share your sadness regarding the world as it is. For it to become what it must be, we need young people like you. If I can, in some small way, encourage you, and you live to make the world a bit brighter, my life will have meant more.”

“You have.” he replied “To see people like you who believe in selfless unconditional help and care is always inspiring and motivating. Your existence is inspiring me.”

When a young Pakistani can bring tears to the eyes of an aging American across generations, cultures and thousands of miles, it truly is a small world. And I am grateful beyond measure.

Jan 042016
 

Neil Armstrong, on his return from the moon said “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”

What if the same were true of human knowledge? What if all human knowledge could, metaphorically, be hidden behind a carefully placed thumb? What if the entirety of human thought is similarly small in relation to the vast innate wisdom that permeates the Universe? What if, in reality, we actually understand very little? What then? What do we do? How should we act, if we must proceed into the next moment with the understanding that we have little understanding? If true, this might be one of the greatest of human paradoxes.

There are, I believe, reasons to question the scope of human knowledge.

The Universe is 14 billion years in the making—the Earth some 4.5 billion—yet we believe we have come close to understanding its deepest secrets in the four or five hundred years since Galileo, Newton and Descartes. On this trajectory, if we complete our understanding in the next two hundred years, or, being conservative, one thousand, what then for the rest of humanity’s future? Will there be nothing for them to ponder about the Universe and how it works?

Even worse, what if our “knowledge” actually drags us further and further from the infinity of the Universe? Is there a possibility our thinking is so mired in orthodoxy we can no longer see beyond the limits of our current beliefs? What if, by insisting we only look through certain lenses, we are becoming more and more blind rather that more and more wise?

Is it possible that 1000 years from now, rather than having used the scientific method to find ultimate answers, we will have set aside that entire belief system as an infinitely constricted lens into the nature of reality? Might we eventually come to understand that any human view of reality will one day be similarly viewed as infinitely constricted? Is it possible we will someday discover that reality is so far beyond any potential human capability we will find our most enduring satisfaction and happiness in the not knowing?

I believe humans will always be in love with the search for the most profound wisdom the Universe is willing to share. So in love, in fact, that even if we discover the deepest wisdom comes from not knowing, we will learn to love the not knowing.

Oct 212015
 

Dear David & Kathryn,

Yesterday, on the suicide hotline, I spoke with a young man who is struggling greatly as he nears the end of his high school career. A number of years ago, life opened before him a horrific, hellacious valley. He fell in and was held captive for too many years. In the past year, not wanting his life defined by the choices that caused his fall, he found the courage to claw his way out of the abyss.

One of the miracles of the hotline is that callers, desperate for help, will often open completely and allow a glimpse into their heart and soul. This young man certainly did. I was witness to a heart filled with wisdom, generosity and love. And while his beauty was so very clear to me, all he could see were the mistakes that led to his trip into hell. He was nearly blind to the miraculous nature of his recovery. I was in awe of his courage on the journey.

Nearly an hour into our time together, I paused and said, “I don’t say this to many callers, but I love you young man. I am in love with who you are, and who you are becoming through the struggles you have faced, and the courage you found to overcome.” He began to cry. Through his tears he said quietly, “I’m not crying because I’m sad. I’m crying because you’re the first person who has ever told me they loved me.” In that moment, I found it impossible to hold back my own tears. How could a young man preparing for college, never have been told he was loved or lovable?

As I reflected on story of this young man, I thought of the two of you. I would be heartbroken if I thought there was even a moment in your life in which you thought you were either unloved or unlovable.

I am in awe of the two of you as well. I am inspired by the joy, creativity, wisdom, generosity and love that flow from each of you. Even if I have told you before, it cannot be said too often: my heart nearly bursts with love and admiration when I think of either of you…and the miracle you are in my life.

A sage in ancient India once observed a knife that can cut anything, cannot cut itself. As humans, we can easily see in others what we cannot witness in ourselves…just like the young man I spoke with yesterday. In moments of sadness, loneliness or challenge, even if you must take it on faith alone, remember you are truly loved, lovable and are a miracle in the lives of those around you.

Love,

Dad