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.

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.

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.

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?”

Aug 012017
 

Just released on Amazon.com (www.amazon.com/dp/0692920196/), my new book entitled:

Questions That Matter

From the back Cover:

Would you be willing to share with me, why you want to live?

This question, asked of people so bereft of joy and connection that they have considered ending their lives, has taught Roger Breisch much about life and the human journey.

Having logged more than 3000 hours answering calls on suicide hotlines, Breisch has come to know the vital, often life-saving role that questions play in our daily discourse. “Answers have a way of ending discovery and learning,” he declares in Questions That Matter, his first collection of writings inspired, in part, by his revelatory experiences talking people off the ledge. “Captivating questions, however, open us to unimaginable possibilities…”

Breisch’s provocative essays explore profound truths hidden within the familiar questions we all share–questions about our lives, our work, our relationships, our gifts, and what, if anything, they mean. “We all struggle to know how to live in a complex and confusing world,” he reminds us. “We desperately want to know what the future might bring for us and humanity…”

Questions That Matter provides insights far more enlightening than pat answers about an unknowable future. Every page is watermarked with healing wisdom that guides us back to the things that matter most on the journey forward – the love and kindness that illuminate our individual lives, and collective soul.

Nov 162016
 

On a recent Operation Snowball retreat, I was deeply moved by a wise, kind and generous young man struggling to find himself within a difficult and heartbreaking life. When he and I spoke, I talked of the need for him, as he became an adult, to redefine his relationship with his parents. That conversation reminded me of a piece I wrote many years ago as our son left for college.

“What’s happen’n here is a long goodbye.”  

Country artists Brooks & Dunn

Why, I have been wondering, is saying goodbye sometimes so very difficult.

We recently took our son to college to begin his freshman year. Leaving him was harder than I imagined it would be. The morning after we returned home, I awoke early and could feel his absence weighing heavily on my heart.

What made me so sad was the realization that the young man I encounter in the future will be a different person. He will always be the son I love, but he will be my son in a different way—increasingly he will be his own person. What’s confusing is that my sorrow does not erupt from a desire to have him remain the boy I have known. Quite the contrary, I am in awe of the thoughtful, responsible, creative, enthusiastic young man he is becoming.

So if my deep sadness does not come from saying goodbye to the young boy as he becomes a man, then from where does it emanate?

What I am coming to realize is that there is a second person to whom I must bid farewell—a person far more difficult to leave behind. I must, I discover, say goodbye to the father I knew myself to be. I’ll always be available when he needs me, but the simple truth is that he needs me less. I am less important—or maybe important in a different way—now that he is beginning to make his own way in the world.

And while I can love, and be inspired by, the young man we are welcoming into the family, I am less comfortable with, or confident in my ability to welcome, the father who must show up. I can no longer treat my son as if he were merely revision 1.01 of the boy who left us. But how do I stop myself from offering the unsolicited advice that seemed so necessary when he was younger? How do I give up the fear that if I don’t watch over him—if I don’t co-manage his life—that the suffering he will inevitably face will not destroy him? Where will I find the strength to know that he really does have the wisdom to create his own life?

Saying adieu to the father who is over-protective, the one essential to his son’s success, the one who must protect him from the oft-scary world…that is a really long goodbye.

Oct 032016
 

Many recall at least one teacher who, because they saw something in us, changed our lives. Sadly, we seldom take time to thank them.

In every school there are teachers to be avoided. Sometimes for good reason, but just as often, the object of our terror was the teacher who demanded what they knew we could produce. Our fear lay in our insecurity and lack of self-confidence. What we said to hide our fear was “She’s too tough!” or, “He’s really mean!”

I approached junior year in high school with a fair amount of math success on my very brief resume. I loved geometry, partly because of Sister Barbara, who was young, enthusiastic and smiled a great deal. Algebra was not my favorite, but I managed reasonable grades.

But as I approached junior year, I was about to face, not only trigonometry, but one of the teachers we feared most, Sister Ann.

As the year began, I discovered the most fearsome thing about Sister Ann was that she had high expectations, and was not about to compromise. She believed in us and cared deeply about our success. And while my trepidation remained, especially before exams, it eased greatly as I discovered I was, more often than not, able to live into her expectations.

But no amount of success on traditional lessons could prepare me for one pivotal day during my senior year.

We had a small class of fourth-year math students. Because we were the few who agreed to test our mettle against the most advance math offered, Sister Ann raised her expectations. She devised a truly terrifying challenge. Each of us was assigned a complex mathematical topic, totally unrelated to the fourth-year syllabus. We were told not only to research the topic, but to hone our understanding so we could present it coherently to the rest of the class.

I have no recollection of the topic assigned, but I remember sitting in the library, staring blankly into texts that held my future. I read and reread the words, but understanding eluded me for what seemed like hours. I felt lost and very alone. But I pushed on; I had no choice.

I can still recall—even re-feel—the moment of elation when the shroud lowered. The euphoria emanated, not from a cursory understanding, but from a deep sense of comprehension. I couldn’t wait to share my excitement with my classmates.

So we come to the day Sister Ann helped me, actually she demanded I, see myself in a new way. Those moments, standing next to the, now ancient, overhead projector, tendered a sense of joy I had never before experienced. In those moments, a facility arose in me; I found myself turning complexity into simplicity. It felt magical.

I have come to know, at heart, I am a teacher. In every talk I give, in every word I write, I strive to turn complexity into simplicity. My goal is to help others understand something that may have eluded them. There is a bit of Sister Ann in everything I do.

I am indebted to you, Sister Ann, for changing my life. You may not have been the first to witness me as a teacher, but you were the first to help me witness myself in that way. I am more because of you, and I am so very thankful.

Postscript: I wrote this with a deep sense of regret. Why had I waited 46 years to express my gratitude? I was certain it was too late to tell Sr. Ann personally.

However, thanks to a classmate, I found Sr. Ann Ozog. I called her and had an opportunity to tell her how she changed my life. It filled my heart with joy.

This amazing woman, along with 20 other Felician sisters, including Sr. Barbara, founded a new religious order, Servants of Jesus. Sr. Ann eventually returned to school to get a law degree and spent twenty years fighting on behalf of the abused, poor and underprivileged.

After I sent this note, she emailed, in part: “To one who made my day! The more I listened to your thoughts, the more I was humbled. If you are who you are because of me or in spite of me, I thank you for the compliments.”

Sadly, Sr. Barbara died just four years ago. If there is someone you need to thank, do it today.

Jan 082016
 

From the January Issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

The theme of this issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine is a 50-year vision for the community. In 2008, Batavia rebuilt the William J. Donovan Bridge which spans the Fox River connecting east and west Wilson Street. As head of the Chamber of Commerce, I was asked to write a letter to my future counterpart, for a time-capsule to be opened as the bridge is rebuilt in the next century:

Dear Chamber of Commerce Executive Director,

It is a challenge to speak to my counterpart 100 years in the future. I suspect very little remains the same as in 2008 since we live on the cusp of a very different era for humans in general—and commerce in particular. The word that best describes the difference between today and that new era is oil. Many predict we are nearing the end of its abundant supply and it is the single biggest commodity that drives the economics of our time. Not only does oil power our industries, it powers our vehicles—and those are the primary users of the Wilson Street Bridge. Likely, by the time you read this, alternative forms of energy have been discovered to create the products you need, power the vehicles that transport you, and support the livelihoods of Batavia’s residents.

So as I write, it is unclear of even the reason for or need to replace the Wilson Street Bridge. But since bridges are perhaps even more symbolic than they are practical, let me address their symbolism. No doubt the other letters in this time capsule deal effectively with the practical, so I am washing my hands of the need to add to that discussion.

We live in an era of isolation. Much has been written about a concept we call social capital—the number, strength and diversity of the networks that connect us as human beings. The Wilson Street Bridge has been a major piece of the infrastructure that has connected the people of the east and the west, but social capital refers to so much more. It includes all the ways humans connect and build a sense of community. Much of the research shows that, between 1960 and today, the creation of social capital has been in dramatic decline. We find ourselves largely isolated and removed from one another.

Interestingly, it is oil that has enabled so much of that isolation. It has facilitated the emergence of technologies that allow—even encourage—us to spend great periods of time alone. Television is perhaps the best example. Oil has also made it possible for us to control the environments of our work places and dwellings—places to which we retreat rather than face the harshness of the outside world.

So as the thoughts emerge, it becomes clear that we need to be more concerned with the philosophical and cultural needs for connection than we do about the physical needs. And while it would be difficult to write to you about ways to enable the rebuilding of the bridge, it is impossible to give you any insight into the rebuilding of your other needs for human connection. We are still neophytes in that construction industry.

I wish you well in rebuilding the physical connector between the east and west aspects of Batavia, but more than that I wish you well in the continuing challenge of connecting the people in the community. This is the challenge of our time…I truly hope it is not the challenge you face.

Postscript: Seven years later I see little reason to soften my critique of our culture of isolation. We have hundreds more digital channels into which we can tune and remain observers, rather than participants in human drama. Dialogue is prepared for us, relieving us of the need to find our own genuine, loving, but elusive, words to offer solace and comfort. Then, when lives unfold and we find ourselves in the presence of devastating loss and suffering, we are amateurs at being human. We search for words we learned from script writers, because we cannot discern our own authentic, unique and vulnerable end to the story. We can and must do better…we have 93 years left in which to learn how. I pray we begin today.

Oct 052015
 

It was an unexpectedly tender moment. On a recent Sunday morning, as I sat at a local coffee shop, a friend approached. “Roger, I know you advise people on occasion. I was wondering if we might chat for a moment.” I’m not a counselor, but as a friend, I readily agreed to explore her obvious pain. Tears began to fill her eyes. “I discovered my daughter snuck out of the house late last night to be with her friends. She has never done such a thing. I don’t know what to do.” 

 Moments of vulnerability, when two people face our unknowingness with honesty and courage, are rare, but so pregnant with possibility. When we choose to inhabit those moments raw and childlike, they offer miraculous opportunities to learn together. All I know of parenting and adolescent psychology are random, often misguided, thoughts gleaned from being a parent. Since I know little more, if anything, than she, perhaps we could allow our experiences and wisdom to collide, and then simply be open to what we might discover together. 

 Seeing the pain in her eyes, I asked if she could let everything drop away and discern the deepest emotion prompting the tears. She paused, thought, and said she really didn’t know. I asked if I could suggest one—I knew what would be at the heart of my tears if I was living her life in this moment. “Are you frightened? Afraid? I suspect you love your daughter more than life itself. You feel yourself losing control, and are simply frightened something will happen to interrupt her life in some horrific way.”  

 With that, fresh tears appeared. In that moment, I knew we were touching on emotions all parents share and understand in much the same way. 

 She went on to explain she and her daughter had an argument several weeks earlier, and it was never truly resolved. “Our relationship is changing in ways I simply do not understand. I know it must change as she becomes an adult, but this feels so frightening.” 

 I asked how she discovered the conceit of the previous evening. She revealed she had surreptitiously taken her daughter’s cell phone and looked at the previous night’s texts. “She’ll be angry when she finds out I looked at her phone.” 

 The relationship between parents and children is complex and often confusing. There is little I know for sure, but I have a fundamental belief: love and honesty must gird the foundation of the relationship. But honesty is so very difficult when we forget to take the time to search deep inside, and show up stark naked and deeply vulnerable. 

 Fear, misunderstood, turns quickly into anger. The reptilian remnants of our brain flood the cortex with neurotransmitters that disable our ability to think. In those moments, we allow anger to throw us unbidden into the craggy terrain called retribution. “How dare she discount my wisdom as a parent? I’ll show her who’s boss!” In the short term, retribution can feel good. In the longer term it annihilates relationships; fractures the foundation built of honesty and love, and replaces them with compost made of distrust and disrespect. I know this dysfunctional path all too well. 

 There is an alternative to retribution. For thousands of generations in native cultures, humans believed in reconciliation rather than retribution. How can victim and perpetrator face one another to simply understand the pain and heartache that allows sometimes horrific actions to emerge? So often, just being heard is enough. We simply want others to see us, and acknowledge and honor our pain. 

 In the end, there is no painless path into relationships, especially with those we love. If there was, what value would they truly hold in our lives? Pain, and the often unfathomable heartache that comes when we fear the loss of those who mean the most to us, is the price we pay for love.