Jan 142021
 

It is so very difficult. When I witness anger and hatred boiling out of a mass of humanity, as that which flooded my life on January 6, part of me wants to turn away and remain in denial. Another part sets out, with the rest of me as an unwitting accomplice, to hate those who hate. In those moments I am reminded of words from The Prayer of St Francis: “Where there is hatred, let me sow love.” Neither turning away, nor allowing hatred to take me hostage, helps heal the wounds that underpin the anger that erupts in the world.

Let me be clear, I am terrified by what the far-right intends for the future of the United States, and globally. There are millions who want a racist world order I find reprehensible. But in this moment, I am desperately trying to separate the movement from individuals that inhabit it.

Anger and hatred are often consequent emotions. If I have learned anything from 18 years answering calls on a suicide hotline, it is this: what shows up as anger and hate, usually emerge out of profound sorrow, deep hurt, or debilitating fear. Sometimes all three. Christian Picciolini, a former neo-Nazi punk rock musician, and founder of the Free Radicals Project, now works tirelessly to prevent extremism and help people disengage from hate movements. In his raw, emotionally-charged book, Breaking Hate: Confronting the New Culture of Extremism, Picciolini reveals his secret to helping people escape…he listens. He listens without judgement for what he calls the “potholes” in their lives—abuse, bullying, desertion, loss, grief, and more—that leave them feeling lost, alone, marginalized, and worthless. Arguments, logic, and rationality are, in his experience, not helpful. Those devices, to which we so quickly turn, leave the person in his midst feeling unheard, lost, and lonely. They can even trigger a frightened, vulnerable individual and send them back to the safety of the extremist community that first took them in. Understanding and empathy are the only keys that unlock doorways.

In a post on social media, I recommended four books, including Breaking Hate, that have helped. They do not, even for an instant, enable me to accept the hateful language, but they have offered a glimpse into the emanation of far-right vitriol. When I suggested these volumes, one respondent replied, “Understanding it is pointless. The only thing to do is to stop tolerating it and begin prosecuting, stopping, and jailing every last traitor.” If we are talking appropriate consequences for a mob trashing the rule of law, I agree. However, if, instead, I focus on the millions of individual broken souls that inhabit that dark and dangerous landscape, I must demur. In an interview, Jitarth Jadeja, who spent two years as a dedicated follower of QAnon, but now understands the horrific lies and fabrications, was asked how to help others discover the truth. “It has to start with empathy and understanding,” he said.

Shortly after January 6, a friend asked, “What about ISIS? They want to kill me. Am I supposed to offer them empathy and understanding?” Call me naïve, but, even there, in a one-on-one, human conversation with a person who sees differently than I, what might I discover about the treacherous mountains and terrifying chasms millions must endure? Those lessons are only available if I first try to understand rather than insisting on being understood.

The Prayer of St. Francis continues: “Where there is doubt, let me sow faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.” If I begin in this moment, is there even a remote chance of healing a miniscule portion of the profound sorrow, deep hurt, and debilitating fear that is in my midst every day, but to which I am often blind?

 It is so very difficult, but, in the end, it is the most enlightening and joyful of journeys.

Dec 162020
 

How might I be different if I knew every idea, thought and reflection I retain in the synapses of my brain is limited or wrong, and acted in every moment as if that were true? How might I treat others differently, and how might they treat me in new ways, if, in a moment of meeting, we knew each had something of value to share with the other. How might my relationships with others be different if I stopped the incessant building of walls to protect my own misguided ways of seeing? What would it take for us to see that learning and new ways of seeing are available to us in every moment? If we were to listen to each other in ways that showed our care, concern and affection for them and their life story, might we also exhibit unconditional love?

How might the world evolve in new ways if we were to listen with every ounce of our being to each word another speaks? It is said the humanistic psychologist, Carl Rogers, would perspire when listening to another because he found it to be such difficult work to be fully present to another. How might our conversations change if we were to listen to everything others have to say? How might our discourse change if, after every thought, a moment of two of silence ensued so we might digest the wisdom in another’s thoughts. If we knew we were going to be truly heard, that every thought we were to express would be treated with respect, might we also slow down and choose our words carefully. In today’s conversations do we feel the need to talk rapidly and express every thought and emotion, for fear the minute we pause, our voice would be silenced?

If I am to honor the covenant with others in search of truth, a requisite is to listen…to always act in ways that show I am open to new ideas, new thinking, and alternative ways to see the world. I must be prepared to begin more of my retorts in discussions and debates with “the perspective you just expressed is interesting and different from mine…would you be willing to explain how you come to that conclusion?” rather than “that’s wrong!”

The word respect comes from the same root as the word inspect…the meaning of which is to look. Inspect means to look into, and respect to look again. We truly respect another when we are willing to take the time to relook—with interest and sincerity—at a perspective that differs from ours. To declare another’s perspective as misguided, without listening deeply to their story, is to show tremendous disrespect…and miss a valuable opportunity to learn something new about the Universe through a new set of eyes.

Dec 082020
 

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
                                                                                Martin Luther King, Jr.

The arc of the moral universe does bend toward justice; however, its trajectory is not unerringly true. As I step ever so gently, perhaps timidly, into the new year, I feel a terrible vulnerability; my naiveté gone, replaced by a honed understanding of how the arc of justice can, at least for a time, be torn asunder.

2020 showed how the arc wanes when doing battle with selfishness. I have always known the human experience to be a fragile undertaking, but I was naïve to its true frailty until a microscopic virus transformed every relationship in my life, some becoming stronger, but many stressed. During the past months, we could have bent the arc significantly toward justice, but millions opted to put their perceived needs ahead of the protection of their neighbors. We lost a priceless opportunity, I fear. Millions were left exposed to the ravages of a danger many refused to acknowledge.

2020 proved the arc can warp when facing greed and corruption that often accompany quests for power; at least for now, we appear to have escaped by the narrowest of margins. The first transition of governance I recall was dealt to us through tragedy on November 22nd, 1963. Yet, even in the face of Kennedy’s assassination, the United States was strong and robust. Prior to 2020 I witnessed eight transitions between Democratic and Republican administrations. I never imagined here, in the United States of America, that that monumental transfer of power would ever take place with anything but the utmost dignity and grace. That naiveté, too, has been ripped from my life. Power will, once again, transfer, but dignity and grace seem somehow an afterthought.

2020 reminded me that, for millions of Americans, there never has been a moral arc, let alone one that bends toward justice. Mid-year, as I wrote my racial autobiography—recalling my relationship to, and history with, issues of race and injustice—I remembered the myriad times I became aware of inequity and inequality based solely on race. Then, sparked by the unjustifiable deaths of so many persons of color, I embarked on a chilling journey into an oft hidden and largely ignored history of the United States. Once again, my naïve worldview was disrupted by the realization that, while I am aware of racial inequality, millions live with its brutality, hostility, and cruelty every moment of every day.

Finally, 2020 opened my eyes to the escalating war the moral arc is waging with hate, fear, and bitterness. In the midst of my learning journey, I came to know of the many centers of hate, not just in this country, but globally, that would have us believe there are castes of humanity; a hierarchy of people, and that millions believe other races to be sub-human. The year 2020, invited that hatred to reveal itself and fan the flames of war against the arc toward justice. In this war, I refuse to take up arms, and willingly proceed in my nakedness.

So, as I step tentatively into the new year, I do so feeling incredibly confused and extremely vulnerable. I do not believe the arc of the moral universe has been irreparably harmed by a single year in human history. I continue to believe, and I will work relentlessly to witness that arc, once again, bending toward justice.

Nov 032020
 

Note: This essay will appear this month in Neighbors of Batavia Magazine.

Likely, you do not know a young Batavian by the name of Katrina Schlenker. You should.

Katrina is one of the most talented high school runners in the State of Illinois and is currently a junior at Batavia High School (BHS). Samantha Poglitsch, also one of the top runners in Illinois, is a senior at Wheaton Warrenville South High School (WWS). Since BHS and WWS are in the same league, Katrina and Sam have faced one another many times over the past three years in both cross-country and track. They are both elite athletes and well-matched. They have frequently traded places as they have crossed numerous finish lines—one traversing that line in first place one week and reversing rolls in a subsequent race.

In early October, there was a particularly noteworthy “twilight” cross-country meet in Naperville featuring many of the top runners from across the region. Once again, the race pitted Sam against Katrina. On that Friday night Katrina ran an excellent race and edged out her talented rival.

Here is why you should know of Katrina Schlenker. In a Kane County Chronicle article the following morning, sportswriter Bob Narang wrote: “After posting her winning time, Schlenker searched for her “big sister” for a celebratory moment. Schlenker credits WWS’s Samantha Poglitsch for providing a jump-start to her budding career nearly three years ago. Schlenker recalled with great detail not making the finals of the 1600-meter run at the Class 3A state track meet her freshman year. ‘I was a little freshman and was so frustrated. I was so upset and was crying. Sam saw it and came right up to me after the race. She was so encouraging. She’s like a big sister to me. She is so kind and supporting. It made me feel so much better.’”

Those words would mean one thing if Sam and Katrina were teammates. But since they are from rival schools, to me, they mean a great deal more.

Why, you might ask, is this little-known high school running rivalry so important to me? Samantha Poglitsch is the daughter of my sister and her husband. Yes, I am Sam’s Uncle.

I have always taken great pride in the success and determination of Sam. I have watched her grow from an infant into an amazing young woman. Because I am often invited to speak to the sophomore health classes at WWS, I know several members of the faculty. One health teacher told me last year “Sam is the complete package…athlete, scholar, and kind and caring classmate to her peers.” The principal said, “while many elite athletes hang out only with other elites, you can find Sam in the hall interacting with virtually any student in the school.”

Katrina’s words reaffirm what I know of my niece and affirm what I now know to be true of Katrina. They are elite athletes and competitors in the grandest sense of those words. The best-of-the-best understand, in the end, how you play the game is one of the most significant facets of true success.

Sam will be off to the University of Illinois next fall. Katrina will, no doubt, find a place at some school of her choosing with an elite running program. Perhaps their rivalry will continue. What will never end, is the positive impact each has had on the other.

Katrina, my final words are for you. Thank you. You have made an uncle immensely proud. More importantly, Samantha’s 94-year-old grandmother, my mother, who lives in Lisle, appreciates your sportsmanship, and thinks you are wonderful. You have shown yourself to be the best kind of sportsperson—a talented and formidable competitor, and a generous and compassionate person. We Batavians are lucky to be able to call you one of our own.

Oct 042020
 

“You’re on this earth for a reason. Life is not a right that comes bearing a right, which is the right of getting. Your life is a gift, and it came bearing a gift, which is the freedom and the art of giving. It is such a joyous way of being.”

Is it just me, or does it feel as though the relentless diet of animosity and polarization we are fed rips joy from life?

Because of an astonishing series of events in 1999, I got to know Dee Hock, founder and CEO Emeritus of VISA. In 1991, Dee became one of thirty living Laureates of the Business Hall of Fame and was recognized as one of eight individuals who most changed the way people live in the past quarter century. When I met him, he had just published his groundbreaking book, Birth of the Chaordic Age.

Lest you conjure an image of an aloof, self-absorbed titan of industry, Dee is anything but. He is one of the finest, most generous, kind, and erudite people I have ever encountered. He was humble and unassuming to a fault. The sentiments expressed above came from Dee’s heart when I asked if there were words he wished to leave for his grandchildren. He would also tell them, “take care of yourself, take care of the others, and take care of this place.”

It wasn’t Dee’s reputation or success that drew me to him. It was the depth of his humanity. It was his devotion to human decency, his unwavering commitment to exceptional personal values, and his unquenchable desire for knowledge and wisdom that touched my heart and soul…and changed the course of my life. Dee, more than anyone, gave me insights into the power of emergence; the ways in which infinitely complex, interesting, and magnificent physical, virtual, and organic systems and structures emerge from simple, yet powerful values. But it is only when we exhibit unwavering commitment to our most cherished values, allowing new and vibrant ideas to percolate, that beauty and complexity emerge.

Perhaps an unwavering commitment to any set of values will allow complexity to emerge. But, in my mind, what gives that complexity beauty and magnificence is when we remember “life is a gift, and it came bearing a gift, which is the freedom and the art of giving.”

Today, it often seems that crippling, humanity-draining animosity and polarization leap out of every nook and cranny. From every vantage point—the press, social media, televised news—all we hear are people demanding rights. Have we forgotten “Life is not a right that comes bearing a right, which is the right of getting”? Don’t misunderstand; there are untold millions who have been denied basic human rights. Asking, even demanding, those rights for every person can be an act of great courage and generosity. But those of us who have not been denied have no right to demand even more.

Because of his unwillingness to compromise his beliefs, values, and visions, Dee found himself unemployed and nearly destitute several times early in his career. “I don’t see that as any great achievement. Yes, I was out of work, and at some critical times. I can’t answer except to say I had a sense that if I didn’t take a stand something in me would die. I only have one life. How do I choose to use it?”

So how do I choose to live my one and only life? In my moments of confusion and dismay at the animosity and polarization I feel surrounding, even suffocating, me, I recall Dee’s words and wonder how I might stop, even for a moment, and ask “what must I stand for lest something in me will die?” Then, and only then, can I find new ways to explore the “freedom and art of giving,” discern more joyous ways of being, and allow true beauty and magnificence to emerge.

Post Script. I emailed a link of this post to Dee, and a short time later received the following reply:

How kind and thoughtful of you, Roger, to remember our meetings so long ago, and write with a reference to your recent blog.  I think you do me too much credit.

In the middle of my 92nd year on this marvelous planet, I still continue doing what I can to help people understand that when the world seems to be staging a madhouse, it is just evolution in temporary flood, trying to sweep away archaic concepts of societal  organization, and management, to make room for the new.

Unfortunately, a few adventures with the medical trade that come with age have put an end to travel for me as well as Ferol, the love of my life for seventy five years.  None the less, life remains joyous, and my confidence in the future has not been diminished.

Again, thank you for taking time to write, and for your efforts to create a more livable world.

Sep 282020
 

Perhaps it is human conceit, our vanity, that most blinds us.

I recently heard of a person whose goal is to make a great deal of money so he can give much of it away. Inherent in his view was a stated desire to reduce poverty around the world. But how much of his desire and tactics emanate from personal conceit?

Many years ago, I attended a one-day conference held in the Unity Temple, home to the Unitarian Universalist church in Oak Park, Illinois. This magnificent house of worship was designed by the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright and built between 1905 and 1908.

The keynote speaker, who took the stage just prior to lunch, was Satish Kumar, an elder and wisdom keeper from India. He spoke with deep conviction about the conceit inherent in the human species. He spoke of the American values of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” and the French dictum, “liberty, equality, fraternity.” He noted how each of them were purely human-centric. They include little regard for other living systems within the biosphere.

But it was what I learned immediately after his remarks that, many years later, still leaves me unsettled, and uncertain how to live my life. Attendees at the conference were assigned to tables for lunch, and, to my surprise and amazement, Satish Kumar took his seat directly across the table from me. The ensuing dialogue was replete with wisdom emanating from a man who has lived a life of deep inquiry. Near the end of our lunch, the topic turned to how we might deal with the desperate poverty that befalls hundreds of millions of humans. When I mentioned the helplessness I feel at not being able to give enough to make much difference, he turned to me and said something I will never forget: “Roger, what you in the west don’t understand is the solution to poverty is not to give more, but to take less.”

I am certain I still do not fully understand the complexity and implications of this simple statement, but I have come to believe in its deep truth. And these many years later, I still live a life that takes far too much, leaving far too little for the millions in need.

Sep 142020
 

“We never knew what we were going to see—what kicks (sneakers) were going to be on sale; what beef (conflict) was going to be cooking; what guads (boys) and shorties (girls) were going to be rocking (wearing)…We did not care if older or richer or Whiter Americans despised our nonstandard dress like our nonstandard Ebonics…Fresh baggy jeans sagging down…Dangling chains shining like our smiles. Piercings and tattoos and bold colors told the mainstream world how little we wanted to imitate them.”

Ibram X. Kendi, in “How to be an Antiracist”

As I read, I confronted prejudice, bias, and fear. I imagined myself surrounded by Kendi and his friends on “the Ave”—where Jamaica Avenue crosses 164th Street in Queens, NY—where he spent many hours during his teen years.

In those moments of imagining, I was not just uncomfortable, I was alone, out of place, and frightened. I was intimidated by the air of self-confidence, rebellion, and defiance. Suddenly, enveloped by an entirely foreign culture, there seemed nowhere to find a solid physical or emotional footing. I am quite certain my insecurity would have me judge with disapproval and seek an immediate escape.

Shortly after my imagined, but all too real, visit to that “foreign” land, some friends and I were discussing what to do in the face of dialects we find difficult to understand. One person asked, “Should there be a standard of communication—a linguistic English we all agree upon so we can communicate effectively?”

Assimilation—expecting other cultures to become like us—is something Caucasians have done for centuries from the moment we sailed from Europe and colonized the world. Other races, other ethnicities, were judged as something less until they learned our more “perfect and sophisticated” ways. How much beauty, wisdom, brilliance, and creativity did we crush as we trampled ways of knowing we found foreign? Had we, instead, listened with new ears—honored, and built upon, rather than burying, the wisdom that emanated from their traditions, languages, and cultures—would we inhabit a world today with sagacity beyond anything we could have imagined?

When we expect others to strip themselves of their ways of knowing—assimilate into our culture—we lose their unique perspectives. Wisdom that loses its intensity, veracity, and authenticity when translated into “perfect” English remains beyond our reach. Profound wisdom does not come to us easily. It comes through struggle. It is hard, difficult work. A businessman I knew, who traveled frequently, used to say, when you’re talking with someone whose first language is other than English, you need to “go ‘round the bush three times.” On the first journey, you hear and see only through what is most comfortable. It is not until the second and third trips that you begin the hard work of listening with new ears to understand the true meaning behind their words.

So, I return to my visit to “the Ave,” albeit imaginary. I wonder if I might see my insecurity and fear, not as signs of danger, but signposts pointing to the prospect of learning. If I could summon the courage to do the hard work of setting my fears aside and listening with new ears, might new ways of seeing, new insights into our humanity, be in the offing? When I expect others to speak perfectly in the language with which I am most comfortable, I vanquish their wisdom and impair the future.

Aug 132020
 

In 1968, as a junior at Muskegon Catholic Central High School, the priest I had for religion class changed my life. I discovered yesterday he is ill, so I drafted the following to send to him today.

Dear Father LaGoe,

Philosopher and educator, Neil Postman once wrote “Children are the living messages we send to a future we will not see.” I want you to know of the messages you have sent, and continue to send, into our uncertain and oft frightening future.

At the request of my daughter, I have been writing my racial autobiography—a retelling of my personal relationship to race. Just the other day, I wrote the following:

The high school experience that changed my life was my junior-year religion class taught by Fr. John P. LaGoe. Fr. LaGoe had a reputation for strident and unorthodox views. Of all the views considered controversial, Fr. LaGoe was as close to being radically antiracist as anyone I could imagine. In our classes, we spent a great deal of time talking about racial issues, significant people of the time (Malcom X, Martin Luther King, Jr., etc.), and the events taking place around the country. I can still hear the sadness in his voice, and the painful look on his face during those discussions. I was in his class the day Dr. King was assassinated. Fr. LaGoe, accurately predicted the massive demonstrations and violence that would occur as a result. It was Fr. LaGoe’s influence that encouraged me to read books about racial issues. He started me on a learning journey, that included books such as Autobiography of Malcolm X, Black Boy by Richard Wright, nigger, an autobiography by Dick Gregory, Soul on Ice by Eldrige Cleaver, and others.

My journey into the inequities of race never abated. I cannot say I have acted in the truly antiracist ways you modeled for us, but my learning journey continues. I write a column in a local magazine. My last essay was entitled “Clawing and the Foundations of Racism,” and can be found on my blog at https://rebreisch.com/rebproject/2020/06/04/clawing-at-the-foundations-of-racism/.

In addition, my daughter is developing and strengthening her voice. She taught in a disadvantaged school on the south side of Baltimore, and currently teaches for DC Public Schools. She is the one encouraging me, my wife, and our son to write our racial autobiographies, and find time to discuss them and use our experiences to move into a vastly different future. There is little doubt your influence on me—the sensitivities you raised in me—were passed on to her.

Because of you—your passion, your joy, and your sorrow—the world is moving in new directions. And, because I have such deep faith in my daughter, she will bring messages from both of us into a future we will not see.

I am grateful beyond words.

Love,

Roger

Jun 152020
 

“This is usually where the desire to dismiss claims of racial oppression come from—it just doesn’t make sense to you so it cannot be right.”

                                                Ijeoma Oluo in So you want to talk about race

I can be justly accused of remaining silent for far too long when words condemning racism should have been spoken. I can, and must, find the courage to speak up whenever and wherever racism enters my world.

However, I am coming to learn the most subtle and deceptive forms of racism erupt, not from the world around me, but from the world within.

In the past weeks, people across the globe have struggled to face the senseless, persistent, and horrific murders of BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of color) in this country—and find ways to end the atrocities. I have watched and listened, trying to take in the stories of pain, anger, sorrow, and resentment that have filled my news and newsfeed. I listen, and think, as Oluo says, “it just doesn’t make sense…so it cannot be right.”

Of course it doesn’t make sense. How could I possibly even begin to understand the raw emotions coming from a person whose life I have not lived? How could I possibly feel what it is like to wake every morning in a skin that is not white? How could I possibly know the sheer frustration and despair of facing a world replete with obstacles that prevent me from being successful, and inflict constant, lingering fear in me and those I love.

It does not make sense to me, but I cannot dismiss that it does make sense to someone who has lived that life. The only way for me to acknowledge the pain, anger, sorrow, and resentment is listen with new ears. I must listen, as best I can, to stories that are in stark contradiction to my own lived experience. I must acknowledge the validity and authenticity of all stories. It is exceedingly difficult because my day-to-day privilege holds at bay the horrors faced by BIPOC. It is the difficulty of the work that makes it that much more necessary.

As I have endeavored these past weeks to listen with new ears, words and stories come at me with new meaning and urgency…and new worlds open before me. Perhaps, more importantly, I find new worlds opening within me.

Jun 042020
 

Changing the world, it is said, is an inside job.

I’ve used this tale before, but it bears repeating. A couple whose son suffers from horrible bouts of anger and fear take him to a Buddhist monk. “Would you,” they ask, “help rid our son of his demons?” The monk pauses and says, “bring your son back in one year.”

A year later the couple returns with their son and the monk begins the lessons. Grateful, but confused, the couple asks why the teaching had to wait a year. “Ah,” the monk replies, “I had first to learn how to rid myself of anger and fear.”

There is arduous work ahead to tear down the insidious walls of institutional racism…to claw at its massive foundations. I am committed to doing what I can to aid that effort, but, in the end, I cannot help anyone rid themselves of racism until I first learn how of rend it completely from my own life.

How could I not have racism written on my soul having been thoroughly immersed in the white neighborhoods and schools of my youth. How could I learn the harsh reality of racial inequality when my grade school had no one of color, and my high school graduating class had just a few? How could my biases not have been further obscured having been a member of my college’s student senate without people of color at the table? How can I live in my community where faces of color are few and far between, and not see racial inequality? Why has it taken to my elder years for me to fully grasp the depth and breadth of white privilege that paves the paths before me…and impedes them for those of color?

In fact, each of these lessons, and hundreds of others, have been critical courses in the curriculum of my life. I have just been too naïve and selfish to enroll.

After reading, among others, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Just Mercy by Bryon Stevenson, Antiracism by Ibram X Kendi, Tears We Cannot Stop by Michael Eric Dyson, it becomes impossible to look in a mirror and remain oblivious to the biases that run so very deep.

Many years ago, I created a symbol as a reminder…a simple piece of cardboard holding two U.S. dimes. On the back it says:

Changing the World is an Inside Job
To change the world, you must shatter paradigms.
Begin with your own!

Should you see me sometime soon, I will try to have one for you as well.

These are difficult and often frightening times. But, for me, they are most difficult because I am being forced to acknowledge the demons inside. Even though I married a woman of a different race, I am aware I still harbor prejudice and racism. I must admit, and come to terms with, those biased, often repugnant views. It is only by tearing down those walls and clawing at those foundations that there will be any real hope for the future.