Feb 172021
 

Note: The following is a short excerpt from a book I have been drafting, about how lost the species Homo Sapiens has become. I have titled it Moving to a Different Rock: Humanities Journey Home. I welcome your thoughts.

Ending Selfishness

“What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it all the rest are not only useless but disastrous.”

                                                            Thomas Merton

The moment we entered this world we were given life…is it possible we deserve nothing more? Should life be a continual search for what we can give in return for this extraordinary gift, rather than a search for what we can gain? To the extent we allow ego to gain identity and strength by shrouding itself in privacy and hiding behind possessions, we make it difficult or impossible to “cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves.”

If I were to suggest that another species had the right to own some portion of this Earth’s resources—that we had no right or access to them—we would be incensed. And yet, we believe we have the right to do just that to other species. What the Universe has given, is given equally to all.

And while the thought of giving up private property is radical enough, how might the world be different if we allowed the possibility we do not have the right to, nor do we even deserve, personal privacy? To have another person know everything about me—even my most intimate thoughts and feelings—would seem a violation.

However, what if we imagined for a moment that all human privacy vanished? What if we lived in a world where all was revealed, a world in which openness and vulnerability were a matter of course, rather than a matter of choice? The moment I became angry, you would know. My jealousies, frustrations, and hatreds would be revealed for all to know. Could I live in a world in which all I revile about myself, everything about me that makes me feel small and inadequate would be known?

There is a Buddhist tradition that suggests if we could see deeply into the soul of those in front of us, we would never accomplish anything; we would be too busy bowing to one another. In a world where you immediately know my story, you may know my faults, but you also know all that tears at my heart. And I too would know what tears at yours. In such a world, we would look at each other and the faults would vanish in the face of our mutual humanity. And in that moment of blessing, the word Namaste—the God in me is witness to the God in you—would have meaning we cannot now even begin to appreciate.

But I am not just suggesting the absence of personal privacy might have value. I am suggesting we do not deserve personal privacy.

One of the first lessons we try to teach young children is the value of sharing and generosity. Why are sharing and generosity so valued? Because when we share with another, the value of what the Universe has given us multiplies. We both gain from experiencing the utility of what is in front of us, and because we not only have our own ideas of its value, through the connection and clash of those ideas, the utility for humanity can multiply many times over.

But our sharing and generosity comes to a halt when it comes to the most intimate, and I might suggest, valuable parts of who we are. I am fond of suggesting to those who call the suicide hotline—those desperate to find the value of their lives—that they are living a life never lived by any human throughout history; a life that will never be lived again. That gives every person some unique view of what it means to be human. But that unique, precious, and enormously valuable wisdom is unavailable unless we are willing to share our stories in all their most intimate details.

To demand personal privacy just might be the ultimate form of selfishness. Ending that selfishness—to learn to talk openly about our deepest vulnerabilities—is one of the skills we will need to witness true beauty amid the coming chaos.

Feb 082021
 

“So here, then, is the last fifty years of American politics summarized: we became more consistent in the party we vote for not because we came to like our party more, but because we came to dislike the opposing party more. Even as hope and change sputter, fear and loathing proceed.”
                                                                 
Ezra Klein

I fear for the future of the United States of America.

Until recent years, if you asked how much the United States changed over the nearly 70 years I have lived, I might have said that it had changed, but, for good or bad, it is not fundamentally different from what it was in 1951. I thought of this country as a stable exemplar of democracy.

But I have begun to wonder about our democracy and its stability. Two recent books, Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein and Twilight of Democracy by Anne Applebaum, leave me wondering if we could lose our democratic republic as have countless democracies during my lifetime.

When change is incremental, we are often blind to monumental shifts that amass over time. In 1950, The American Political Science Association published a paper coauthored by many of the country’s most eminent political scientists. In it they pleaded for a more polarized political system. They lamented the Democrat and Republican parties each contained too much diversity, looked too much alike, and worked together too easily. In those days, when going to the polls, many citizens split their ballots, caring more about issues than party affiliation.

Things began to change dramatically in the 1960s. Prior to 1964, the Democratic Party was the party of the Dixiecrats, southern democrats who pledged allegiance to Jim Crow laws and “separate but equal’ policies, ignoring the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v Board of Education. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and the emergence of Barry Goldwater and his allegiance to states’ rights, the Dixiecrats jumped parties. Lyndon Johnson, the night he signed that legislation, was said to lament, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”

As divisions grew—as the parties became ever more distinct—Americans began to choose sides, not unlike we do with sports teams. Voting became less about issues and more about making sure your “team” won. As Klein said above, voters came to dislike the other party more and more, allowing fear and loathing to proceed.

While an inspiring future vision can encourage people to act, inciting fear calls forth powerful passions and unpredictable behaviors. In the face of abject fear, rationality and logic exit the stage, replaced by irrational and senseless acts. Given enough fear, anger can easily become the appetizer we choose, followed often by an entrée of violence.

Over the past two decades, fearful rhetoric has come to dominate our political discourse. How many recent political campaigns promised policies aimed at a brighter future versus asserting that a vote for the opponent would give the other party the power to destroy you and everything you love? And, of those who promised a path to the promised land, how many either changed their rhetoric or went down to defeat?

In her book, Anne Applebaum recalls a conversation with behavioral economist Karen Stenner. Stenner reminded her that people are often attracted to authoritarian ideas because they are bothered by complexity. The work of Nobel Award-winning economist Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow) reminds us the human mind is lazy. We will typically choose a simple, albeit errant, answer to a problem, rather than doing the work of challenging our assumptions. Is it any wonder, then, that we have witnessed the emergence of QAnon, countless conspiracy theories, and authoritarian rhetoric? They offer simple, if not irrational, answers in a complex world.

Our 32nd president, Franklin D Roosevelt famously said, “the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Unless we recall these extraordinary words, learn to speak to one another with compassion and understanding, and face our fears together, we just may face them torn asunder.

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.

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.

May 282020
 

I have used the phrase “This time matters” frequently in the time of COVID-19. When asked to introduce myself in groups, I say, “I’m Roger Breisch, Speaker Provocateur.” Then, I pause and declare with resolve “This. Time. Matters.” Looking around, I see many nods of recognition and affirmation.

But I didn’t realize how much this time matters until recently, when I was invited into a conversation with a group of wise and thoughtful high school and college students.

We began with introductions. “Tell us your name and school, and recall something positive emerging from this time of ‘shelter-in-place.’” As the words traversed our virtual space, it became evident how much this pandemic brought an end to many of the ways we had been living our lives. The hectic pace of the past vanished, and life suddenly and unexpectedly slowed. But, as it did, a time of reflection, rediscovery, and renewal opened before us. What touched me was the number of participants for whom new and renewed relationships with friends and loved ones was what began to flourish.

In 1980, Bill Bridges published “Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes.” It is considered, by many, self-included, one of the most significant personal development books ever written.

The insight Bill shared is that we, too often, yearn for an end to periods of our lives that hold the possibility of deep insights and great wisdom—the weeks, months or even years after something has come to an end. “Endings must be dealt with if we are to move on to whatever comes next in our lives,” Bill says. “Transition is part of being alive, of letting go of how things used to be and starting over in some different way.”

Bridges reminds us there is value in finding the courage to dwell in the time between endings and new beginnings. If, in our fear and confusion, we race to something new, we miss the understanding and wisdom that endings are there to impart. The period of uncertainty—what Bridges calls the Neutral Zone—is fertile ground for seeds of wisdom to germinate, develop, and multiply. If we fail to honor “this part of being alive,” the seeds of sagacity lay fallow.

I realize my life has not been ravaged by COVID-19 as have the lives of millions for whom loved ones, livelihoods and dreams have been torn asunder. I mean no disrespect to those millions, but, in this moment, I am grateful, not for the disease and the horror in its wake, but for the group of young people who taught me how much this time matters. And what matters most is relationships…the joy and renewal that flow from a reciprocity of respect and love with those around us.

Postscript: After one of the students read a draft of this essay, she sent the following note: “After our meeting, I felt more encouraged to look at the positives of the pandemic. It’s like the book, “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. He did not regret his experience in the concentration camp, but rather learned from it. I think we can learn from this—to not take things for granted. Like you said, this time matters.

Nov 222019
 

Resource Curse. It’s the plague wrought upon the planet when a person, company, institution or government finds themselves awash in inconceivable wealth.

In Blowout, Rachel Maddow’s comprehensive, forthright, and beautifully written examination of the oil and gas industries, we learn of the curse rained down upon our species as a result of billions of dollars concentrated in the hands of small numbers of individuals. We have selfishly stolen this wealth from Mother Earth—stored for hundreds of millions of years and limited in quantity—for our insatiable and gluttonous consumption.

This capacious wealth, coming out of the ground in torrents, brings out the ugliest aspects of our humanity. Corruption, tyranny, murder, exploitation, and all other forms of inhumanity, explode from the haves at the expense of the have-nots. Countries with the greatest influx of fossil fuel income, because of rampant corruption, often end up with tremendous poverty, horrendous environmental problems, impoverished educational systems, increased infant mortality, reduced life spans, and poorer quality of life.

It is frightening to understand what humans are capable of in the face of unimaginable wealth. What is most frightening is that I don’t believe this is the result of money finding its way into the pockets of a few corrupt individuals. While there are examples of people with enormous wealth who use it for good, I fear resources of this magnitude could easily corrupt most people if it found its way into their pockets. I fear even I would lose my sense of self in the face of hundreds of millions, or billions, of dollars suddenly at my disposal.

In the end, the wealth that literally erupts from the earth, has given humanity the ability to alter the environment to the detriment of millions of other species; likely even our own. I wonder if ours is an aberrant species, so destructive of the magnificent biosphere to which we were heirs, that God is in tears?

Aug 052019
 

Fair warning. For those who look to these posts for comfort and reconciliation, this piece is likely an exception.

Several recent books and conversations emboldened me to peer some distance into the future. The vista is, at best, sobering.

Bill McKibben, an environmentalist who has been writing about global warming for more than 30 years, recently published his latest volume: Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? In it, McKibben expands his perspective by examining not just the environment, but also artificial intelligence and genetic engineering.

A friend once cautioned, in every human endeavor, intended consequences sometimes happen; unintended consequences always happen. The consequences we intend for artificial intelligence are more efficient decision making, less repetitive work, greater safety, and lower costs to produce the necessities of life. However, did you know the most common job description in the United States today is “driver?” What happens when autonomous vehicles force millions who call themselves drivers to find new sources of income? How many of our neighbors will suddenly struggle to pay their bills?

Genetic engineering could force us to abandon everything we know about what it means to be human. While “germline” genetic engineering—altering heritable human traits—remains illegal globally, should it someday become acceptable, we could begin to design our children. Since only the wealthy will have that capacity, McKibben wonders if we might end up with two classes of humanity: the wealthy who have been designed to excel in every facet of being human, and the rest who become second class.

Similarly, environmental challenges could force tens of millions across the globe to abandon coastal areas and leave farmland suddenly incapable of supporting crops. If that should happen, people flocking to the U.S. southern border might number in the millions per month rather than a hundred thousand. What then? If U.S. coastal regions become uninhabitable, where will those millions go. My niece, who works on environmental issues, suggested the upper Midwest will become an attractive destination. What happens if Batavia suddenly finds thousands at its “southern border” seeking refuge?

I recommend McKibben’s work, with a substantial caveat. He suggests a “solution,” but it’s easier for me to believe in fairy dust. A wise gambler, he submits, after winning a comfortable amount in a casino, will walk away; she has enough for a comfortable future and is satisfied. McKibben suggests humanity has had a good run at the casino we call Mother Earth. We have won a great deal; enough, if properly distributed, to provide a comfortable life for the species. It’s time, he suggests, we walk away and be satisfied with our winnings. No further environmental damage, and a halt to development of artificial intelligence and genetic engineering.

If that’s the best hope for our salvation, please pass the fairy dust.

I was discussing McKibben’s views with some intelligent, astute friends. “Certainly,” they assured me, “someone will figure each of these things out.” It reminds me just how many people have their heads in the sand. They profess an understanding of potential disruptions, but, in the end, are in denial that any will substantially impact their lives.

So, what to do in the face of those who are in denial? Many years ago, an author asked what you might do if you were in a building you knew to be on fire, while other occupants were in denial. You could, she suggested, run around yelling “FIRE!” However, you would likely be labeled a crackpot. Alternatively, you could open the doors and windows, so when others are convinced of the danger, they can find their way out.

In the years since that metaphor was revealed to me, I have wondered what it might mean in our communities to “open the doors and windows” so, when our neighbors become convinced of coming disruptions, they can find their way out. I’m not sure I have an answer, but I’ll have some thoughts in a future post.

Nov 302018
 

I am sad much of the time these days, and, as I reflect, it feels as though much of my sadness erupts from fear. I am frightened about a future rooted in an environment impregnated by discord, untruth, misconception. I fear we have become a body politic lacking the interest or will to seek wisdom, connection, and love. In a garden, manure is a magnificent fertilizer. However, the dung created by our war of words, rather than being nourishing and procreative, is toxic to the germination of ideas. Our body politic needs intensive care.

We seem to exist in a world in which few are willing to listen. Everyone, it seems, is willing to opine, but opinion lacking authentic, thoughtful curiosity is hollow. How might the world be different if every expression we utter ended in a question mark—either real or implied? What might emerge from our conversations if we were deeply eager to engage in inquiry-affirming dialogue?

Politics, it is often said, makes strange bedfellows. I recently read Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse’s book, “Them: Why We Hate Each Other—and How to Heal.” As one of the most conservative republicans in the U.S. Senate, is a fair assumption the Senator and I would disagree greatly on the solutions to the problem. However, we are in full agreement on the root causes. In a recent interview on PBS, Sasse explains:

More and more people are processing their politics not primarily as what they’re for, but as a form of anti-tribe. What are we against?

And so, I think you see a willingness among the American public to accept more falsehoods than would have seemed normal at most moments in U.S. history, because people hear them as a kind of rhetoric that is mostly a framing of the other side and the things that we’re against.

We need a politics that isn’t chiefly that, isn’t chiefly against. We need a lot more ‘we’ and a lot less ‘them’.

In the end, I am left with a bit of hope when we who disagree, can peer together and gain some clarity on root causes. If we can follow that agreement and clarity with inquiry-affirming dialogue, and a profound interest in listening, perhaps we can find a fertile garden in which to propagate new ideas, and a new life-affirming future.

Oct 072017
 

Now and again, I find the work of an author so compelling, their book deserves a mention not only in my list of recommended books, but as a separate post. “Reset Your Child’s Brain” by Victoria Dunckley, MD is such a work.

Dr. Dunckley, over the past 20 years, has been documenting a disorder she christened Electronic Screen Syndrome (ESS). It is caused when the human brain—especially in children and young adults—is chronically over-stimulated by electronics. Symptoms of ESS in youth include, but are not limited to, inability to focus, poor sleep patterns, falling grades, meltdowns, defiance, fits of rage and loss of friends.

I have wondered whether our growing addiction to laptops, tablets, smartphones, television—and the games, apps and programs that animate them—have an impact on us. However, I was unprepared for the enormity of Dr. Dunckley’s findings. It’s difficult to know where to even begin.

Perhaps most disturbing is the evidence that youth, who are often seized for hours every day in “fight-or-flight” mode, face greatly increased levels adrenaline and cortisol in their system. In that mode, the body moves blood to the muscles and away from other critical organs…like the brain. When that happens, the development of the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex can be impeded with potentially long-term adverse effects on cognition and executive function.

Secondly, the blue light emitted by virtually all screens disrupts the body’s levels of serotonin, dopamine, and melatonin, which disrupts sleep patterns and can lead to mood disorders, stress and general dysregulation of the body’s metabolic, physiological, or psychological processes.

The author does NOT leave the reader without solutions. She suggests that any person, but especially children and young adults, who show signs of ESS, avoid all electronic screens for a period of at least three weeks to see if the body is able to re-regulate and return to a healthier relationship with the outside world.

If you have children, know of children, or even care about children, this book is worth your time and attention.