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.

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

May 042020
 

What if the answer was deeper, less objective and more nuanced than a simple recounting of the number of times the earth orbited the sun since the day you arrived?

If I asked, instead, how creative you are, I would be confused and disheartened if you answered “5,” “23,” or “99.” Those are meaningless in the context of creativity. I would appreciate hearing that you love to write poetry or music. It would tell me a great deal to hear that your passions are theater and improv.  I could look more deeply into your soul if you say, “While I am not terribly accomplished, I take great pride in some of the pencil sketches I have attempted.” I was touched recently by a caller who told me she loves to write music, especially pieces that erupt from her deep sorrow and invite others to listen deeply to their own with less judgement.

Similarly, if I asked about your generosity, your capacity for love, and the extent to which you are trustworthy and honest, what would you tell me? Should I ask of your wisdom, I would gain insight even if you were to express doubts about the depth and breadth of yours.

With one exception, there is no upper limit on the qualities that define our character. Our admiration for another is in direct proportion to the extent of their creativity, generosity, love, trustworthiness, honesty, and wisdom.

The one exception, or course, is our culture’s, oft unspoken, acceptable upper limit on the number of years we have lived. There is no remark about creativity, generosity, love or wisdom equivalent to being “over the hill” regarding age.

What would it mean if the answer to how old you are was similarly nuanced? What if, instead, how old you are is defined by the character you cultivated during the years you have lived? To which, of course, there is no limit.

What if, instead of telling me your age, you were willing to admit you are old enough to know the limits of your knowledge; that you are coming to understand the power of questions and are less compelled by the veracity of opinions—yours and others. To what extent would you be willing to share you are old enough to focus more on what is left for you to be, and less about what is left for you to do?

I would love to hear you have learned the power of compassion and how you might use yours to ease the journey of others; that you are discovering, when you are with another during a time of deep sadness and grief, it is not within your power to fix, but absolutely within your power to be fully present—and that that is enough. Might you also admit you have less fear about your legacy and are taking comfort in knowing that such a thing is unknowable.

Should we meet sometime soon, and I ask how old you are, know that I do not care a whit about the years you have lived. What I care to discern is the extent to which you have fully lived during your many revolutions of the planet Earth, and developed character worthy of the time you have been given.

Apr 132020
 

“I would steal the stress and abuse from your life in an instant if I could, but I cannot. However, has the chaos you are facing taught you something about the human journey that you can use to help others?” I have asked some version of this question to hundreds of people over the past 17 years. The most typical response is, “You have no idea!” I recall asking one woman, who was bone weary from a life of giving and having been taken advantage of, why she might want to go on. Her response filled my heart. “I still have so much left to give.”

If you ask people to recount the most learningful, creative moments of their lives, a surprising number of those stories will have arisen from times when life seemed out of control. It is during those times, when life sidles from order into chaos, we are called to be maximally creative. A spouse is unexpectedly gone, and the broken family must discover new ways to survive. An unforeseen chronic disease suddenly invades, and life abruptly pivots. Loss of a career or life goal demands we see the world anew.

In the 1990s, when Dee Hock was writing his extraordinary book, “Birth of the Chaordic Age,” he thought a great deal about that edge where nature is maximally creative, where chaos and order suddenly overlap. He searched all the major languages for a word to describe that intersection, but none was to be found. So he borrowed the first syllables from “chaos” and “order” to create the word “chaord.” If you wish to find the emergence of creativity and innovation, you simply need to look for chaords, and you needn’t go far. Except for the species Homo sapiens, every other species in nature experiences the intersection of order and chaos every single day.

Covid-19 has thrown the entirety of the human species into that overlap of order and chaos. Out of the chaordic experience of the last several months, I’ve been witness to innovation, creativity and emergence of new ideas unlike anything I have ever experienced in any comparable span of time. I am heartbroken for the millions who are finding the future filled with anxiety and pain, yet I am astounded by the generosity and creativity that has emerged to try to ease that pain. Money being raised to fill food pantries…volunteers shopping for the elderly and infirmed so they may remain safe…neighborhoods coming together on balconies to remind us of what we have, as to opposed to what we are losing…millions at home sewing masks…artists of all ilks flooding social media with astonishing music and beauty…essential services pivoting to provide and help us remain safe…and, factories instantly repurposed to produce PPE and respirators. The global eruption of generosity, love, even intimacy, is palpable.

Around the globe, humans are doing everything possible to edge out of this chaord and return to our normal sense of safety, control and order. As much as anyone, I grieve the losses, and fear the future we face, as long as the coronavirus reigns rampant. And yet, I feel a paradox in the offing. Will we, even to some small extent, grieve the loss of generosity, love and intimacy not nearly so palpable when life does return to “normal?”

Dec 052019
 

At first, it ended tragically.

At a recent Operation Snowball* retreat, the teens wrote a skit entitled “Asking for Help.” In the first performance, one of the teens was struggling mightily with challenges life mercilessly hurled in her path. Despite her overwhelming heartbreak and pain, she never asked for help. Those around her, even if they noticed, did little in response to her subtle cries for love and support. Alone and confused, without the comfort of family and friends, her life ended in tragedy.

I was asked to facilitate the ensuing discussion, so I rose and asked the eighty or so teens what went wrong. “What would you have done differently?” I inquired. They knew she needed help and were saddened that those around her let her down. The failure brought some in the room to tears.

We talked about the many ways we can pick up on a cry for help. Obviously, when friends tell us they are in trouble, it’s easy. But often, cries are silent and subtle. “If we see unexpected changes in mood, it would be important to reach out,” one teen suggested. Another counseled “If a friend’s habits change unexpectedly, it is never a mistake to ask if they are okay.” I reminded them, even if we see a stranger who appears to be sad, we can always offer assistance or just a smile. “Remember, when someone needs support, you are not responsible to solve their problems. You only have to help get them to someone who can.”

The actors replayed the final moments of the skit. But this time, the struggling teen’s friends picked up on her sadness and anxiety and insisted she come with them to get help. That version was truly lifesaving.

As we discussed the second performance, we agreed it is difficult to ask for help, especially for teens. We recounted many reasons. “I’m the strong one. If my friends and family find out I am struggling…they’d be disappointed.” “My father is out of work and we have no insurance.” “I don’t want to be a burden on others.” “My parents are under a lot of stress because my uncle is dying from cancer.” “My sister is already in counseling. I can’t tell my parents I need it too.” “My mother is a single parent. She is stressed enough already.” The list is endless.

But then, one teen spoke up. “I think many people, especially teens, don’t ask for help because they don’t think they deserve it.” That nearly brought me to my knees.

An hour before the session began, as I reflected on the upcoming events, I recalled a conversation with a friend 25 years earlier. He asked if I believed in fairness. The question was startling, nevertheless, I assured him I did. “If you were at a dinner and the dessert tray had only two pieces of the pie you wanted, and one was clearly larger that the other, which would you take?” Since the question didn’t require deep contemplation. I told him I’d likely take the smaller one. “Always?” he pressed. This time I thought, but only for a moment. “Yes, probably.” “Ah,” he shot back, “then you really don’t believe in fairness, do you?”

I repeated that ancient exchange to the students and adults in front of me. I then recounted the many reasons we don’t ask for help. Is it possible, I asked, that, when life is dispensing love and support, we’re too willing to give others the larger slice? “It’s unreasonable,” I acknowledged, “to always be first in line, but, if we continually put ourselves last, perhaps we really don’t believe in fairness.”

We tell ourselves it is better to give than to receive. I believe that. But, if we believe in offering love, kindness, and generosity to all humans, then doesn’t the person we see every morning in the mirror, deserve to receive an equal share from us as well?

*Operation Snowball is a teen leadership program for which I am an adult volunteer.

Jun 072019
 

“You are truly a gentleman,” I told him. Later, I began to wonder if it had been a mistake.

It was early morning on the final day of a recent trip to Ireland. I had just finished a session on the treadmill in the hotel’s fitness center and was returning to our room. To my delight, as I wandered through the lobby, I discovered a small stand offering complimentary coffee; for me, the perfect end to a morning workout. As the steaming beverage filled my cup, a smartly dressed hotel employee adorned with a cheerful smile strode over to wish me a good morning. When I thanked him for the coffee, his smile broadened, he looked me straight in the eye and said, “I make sure our guests get fresh, hot coffee every morning.” I was taken by his sincerity and intimacy. It was at that moment I made the mistake of telling him he was a gentleman.

It is easy to confine a human being with a careless, poorly considered word. Not long ago, I had a long conversation with a young woman who was imprisoned by the word “worthless,” the moniker her parents inscribed on her psyche throughout her childhood. “Nothing I ever did was good enough,” she explained, fighting back tears. It broke my heart to hear this bright, articulate, caring young woman tell me over and over how, even in those moments when she knew in her heart-of-hearts she was kind, generous, hard-working and determined, she could not shake the feeling she had not a shred of true worth.

But isn’t it different to use a description like “gentleman” that conjures images of generosity, care and nobility? How could that possibly confine or imprison a person?

When I turned a kind, early morning gesture of a hotel employee into a description of him as a human being, I imprisoned him. No human being is perfect…there are moments in every life during which we fail to live up to the high standards to which we ascribe. No doubt, there will be moments in which he fails to live into what it means to be a gentleman. In those moments of self-disappointment, I imagine him looking in a mirror and thinking, “That guest who told me I was a gentleman, was so very wrong. I am nothing of the kind.”

A moniker is a title we either accept or reject, and, due to our imperfections, even the kindest, most lovingly offered labels can end up on the rubbish heap of our lives.

In a book I read recently, the author advocates for unconditional self-acceptance. We should always endeavor to exceed high standards and celebrate those moments in which we do. But, can we learn to be gentle with ourselves when we inevitably fail to live into the person we hope to be? Can we recall our worth even when we misstep?

Whenever we encounter a moment of grace with another person, might we comment on what was achieved, and refrain from turning a kind gesture, moment of brilliance, or extraordinary accomplishment, into a confining description of a person’s humanity? I wish I could return to my encounter with a truly wonderful human being in a hotel lobby in Dublin. I would, instead of commenting on the entirety of his humanity, have simply commented on his act of kindness and generosity. Thanked him for the way in which his manner, brilliant smile and words, made me feel as though I was the most important person in his life; at that moment, I believe I was. Then, at some future time, should he fail to live up to his high standards, he will always be able to recall an early morning encounter in which he succeeded…and celebrate.

Mar 232019
 

When grace enters my life unexpectedly, the moment often becomes a font of knowledge and wisdom.

Operation Snowball is an organization for high school students who want to live healthy lives by keeping an informed and respectable distance between themselves and drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. Twice each year a three-day retreat is convened for a hundred or more participants. I recently had the privilege of participating in my 26th such weekend.

The keynote speaker Friday afternoon was newly elected Kane County Sheriff Ron Hain. I have heard the Sheriff speak and I am inspired by his leading-edge ideas and philosophies related to law enforcement. On that day, however, I had no expectation of inspiration, just thoughts about teens, drugs and alcohol.

However, Sheriff Hain prefaced his remarks by retelling his journey from a young boy of twelve to Sheriff of Kane County. You see, and he admitted it was the first time he told this story in a very public venue, when he was 12, his father walked out on him and his mother. In that moment, as they cried, he realized the imminent choice that would chart the course of his life. He could, he told us, be destroyed by the abandonment, or use it as a lever to propel him forward toward a life of meaning. Thankfully for all of us, he chose the latter. From that moment forward, every significant decision he faced became another chance to prove, to himself and the world, he would use his time on this planet to make a difference.

Sheriff Hain did speak of drugs, alcohol, and law enforcement, and, following his remarks, there were many questions from the teens about a life in criminal justice. But the questions that most caused the Sheriff to pause, were those about what it meant for his father to abandon him and his mother.

I have long thought about the pain in our lives and who we might become with or without it. With this unique opportunity right in our midst, I raised my hand and asked, “Sheriff, if you could, would you go back to that moment when you were 12 and re-write history? Would you write a story in which your father remained in your life?” He paused for a long moment, then he looked at the 100 of us in the room and admitted that that moment made him who he became. He then said, “As strange as it may seem, that event was a gift in my life, and I would not go back and change it.”

I think many in the room were stunned by that revelation, but I was overcome with joy. Not joy over his father’s departure, but joy for the gift the Sheriff had just bestowed. Over the past 13 years in Snowball, I have heard hundreds of stories from teens who live through horrendous pain. There were many in the room that Friday afternoon who had lived through moments as painful as the Sheriff; some are living lives even more raw and chaotic. I thanked him for helping us understand that those moments, as horrible and as unfair as they are, can become defining moments in our lives. Those moments can overwhelm us…they can also propel us.

It is a story I have heard thousands of times answering calls on the National Lifeline. Often, after witnessing a human being in inordinate pain, I will ask, “While I would take this suffering away in an instant if I could, I cannot. However, are you learning something about what it means to be human that you can use to help others?” Often, the response is “You have no idea.”

Sheriff Hain, your ideas about law enforcement inspire me, but this past weekend I was moved by your strength and humanity. The gift from your life, became one in ours. I am deeply grateful for you giving us that unexpected moment of grace.

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.