Dec 072018
 

There are Universes in our midst, but assumptions can prevent us from experiencing their extraordinary wisdom, beauty, and elegance.

What number would you multiply by itself to arrive at -1? Early mathematicians assumed such a number was useless. They referred to it in a derogatory way as imaginary.

A visual depiction of the Mandelbrot Set

In the 18th century, mathematicians relinquished that assumption and began to give structure and meaning to imaginary numbers. They used the letter “i ” to denote the square root of -1. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that “super computers” enabled Benoit Mandelbrot to peer into a yet undiscovered universe. Named for him, the Mandelbrot Set is one of the most famous images in all of Mathematics. You can expand the Mandelbrot Set billions of times and elemental structures emerge again and again. (Play the short video at https://youtu.be/9G6uO7ZHtK8, listen to the music and imagine yourself peering into eternity.) We are blind to this breathtaking universe until we surrender the assumption that the square root of -1 is meaningless.

At the time Benoit Mandelbrot was peering into infinity, I was teaching Mathematics at a private boarding school near Princeton, New Jersey. I lived in the dorm and was advisor to several freshmen.

One Spring evening, David, one of my advisees, came to my apartment looking sad and frightened. He was about to complete French 1 with an elderly, kindly member of the faculty…one whose demands were minimal. That afternoon, David discovered he would be learning French 2 from an excellent, very demanding teacher. “Mr. Breisch,” he whispered in tears, “you have to let me out of her class. I’m not prepared. I’ll fail!” My heart broke, but since David was one of my (favorite) algebra students, I knew him to be diligent, intelligent and determined. I was certain he would succeed. In one of the most heart-wrenching moments of my time as a teacher, I looked him in the eye, told him of my confidence and that I would not let him shy away from this challenge. I sent him back to his room alone and in tears. The following year, after each French test, David returned to my apartment and we would, together, celebrate his success.

I have lost track of David, but my hope is that, by surrendering assumptions about his inability, he began to peer into a breathtaking personal universe that was, until that moment, inaccessible to him.

Not long ago, I spoke with a young woman suffering from lupus, a disease that could end her life. Her mother, she told me, constantly lamented the myriad experiences her daughter would never enjoy—everything from a glass of wine to having children. The young woman explained that, while she sometimes finds the disease difficult, she had a deep appreciation for the life that resulted from it. She tried to find words that would enable her mother to witness the wholeness of her life rather than its perceived brokenness. One day, when her Mother once again began to focus on all her daughter would miss, this young woman turned to her and said, “Mom, what you refuse to see is all you have missed by not having lupus!”

It was a stunning moment. I felt as though this woman had given me new eyes. My old eyes, when in the presence of a person who may lack abilities, were blinded by assumptions of what they were missing in their lives. The eyes she gifted me, by surrendering those assumptions, began to see worlds that were always there, but to which I was blind—Universes in which others are not lacking in abilities; they are given capabilities, capacities and wisdom I can never have. By peering through their eyes, hearts and souls, I can experience wisdom, beauty, and elegance in Universes in which it is I who is less-than-able in very profound ways.

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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.

Jun 042018
 

Money separates us from life and devalues humanity.

I recall an exercise used in a philosophy class. “Think of a problem in your life, any problem regardless of its difficulty or seeming intractability. Is there an amount of money that would solve the problem for you?” the professor would ask. Inevitably, students would find some amount to rid them of the struggle, even though the sum would usually allow them to flee the problem rather than solve it.

Today, many live with such wealth, when we face collective problems, it is easier to write a check than roll up our sleeves and get to work. We no longer face the harsh, but very real and essential, nature and wisdom of life. We pay someone else to face it on our behalf, which eases our guilt, but robs us of life’s extraordinary wisdom.

Before humans invented money, everything of value was perishable. Wealth was in the form of livestock and plants that could not be stored, so the fragility of life was apparent every day. If the tribe suffered a setback, the skills and talents of every member were required for survival.

With the advent of money, life became more secure. With its fragile nature at bay, families could survive outside the safety of the tribe. Should a family face a setback, there was a reserve to protect them, at least for a time. The lives of individuals became less important. It was, I fear, a pivotal point in our alienation.

Throughout much of human history male members of the tribe were the hunters. Men were judged not only on their skill, but also the wisdom they showed by carefully taking only what the tribe needed for survival, and nothing more.

When I was young, fathers—most mothers I knew did not work—disappeared every morning into an unknown and frightening jungle and returned with their bounty. Unlike earlier days, when I could take pride in my father’s warrior skill by witnessing his kill and learn the wisdom of non-excess, the bounty he brought home disappeared silently into the vault of some local bank. Excess was celebrated, not avoided. The value of my father’s heroic efforts was stolen from me, and I was taught to genuflect at the altar of excess.

And, what of the efforts of those who volunteer? They trade time, expertise, and wisdom for the satisfaction of knowing they have contributed to the general good? Gross Domestic Product is the measure we use to value human effort in every country in the world. Tell me, where are volunteer hours, and the substantial gains in human society, counted? They are not. When we tally that with which we make global decisions, the labor of those unpaid doesn’t count. This knowledge weighs heavy on my heart since there is little money that flows to my family for much of the work I currently do.

One image of the prophet Mohammad, founder of Islam, is of a man in great emotional pain over the loss of values in his tribe. With the founding of Mecca—a highly successful center for trade and commerce—individual families gathered enough excess wealth to protect themselves. The need to care for the tribe vanished. The poor and infirmed were forgotten. It was wealth, not poverty, that created the gulf between those who have and those who do not and called Mohammad and his founders to a new way.

Even Jesus, is it said, admonished us that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

I fear that, unless someone calls us to a new way yet again, wealth will eventually destroy us.

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.