Mar 132021
 

“I’m a burden to everybody,” she began when I answered the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. “Everyone would be better off if I wasn’t here.” “Are you considering suicide?” I asked. She paused, and quietly admitted she was. I asked her first name and age, for familiarity and a bit of context. “I’m Sue (not her real name) and I’m almost 14.” It broke my heart that a person so young believes others would be better off if she ended her life.

I asked why she feels a burden to others. “I frequently get in trouble at school and it’s really hard on my mother.” When I asked for an example, she related the following: “We’re reading To Kill a Mockingbird in class and the author uses the ‘N’ word throughout the book. My teacher insisted that, given the time it was written, and to make the story real, it was necessary to use that word. That upset me. I raised my hand and asserted there should have been a way to write the story without the ‘N’ word. The teacher said I was wrong, sent me to the principal, and he called my mother.”

“I can see merit in both sides,” I replied, “but your teacher was unwilling to engage in a discussion?” “No. She just told me I was wrong.”

“If I asked your Mother, would she say you are a burden.” “Probably not, but even if she doesn’t say it, I wonder if she sometime thinks I am.”

Since the example she gave me was over an issue she felt was important, I asked if she also gets into trouble for things that may be silly or trivial. She said that seldom happens. “Most often I get into trouble because of something I believe is wrong. When I have something to say, and speak up, even my friends roll their eyes. I make everyone’s’ lives difficult”

“Would it be fair to suggest you try to make the world a better place?” I asked. When she admitted she did, a thought occurred to me. “I can’t recall his name, but a black congressman passed away recently who did change the world.” “Do you mean John Lewis?” she asked. I was stunned. “You’re 13 and you know of John Lewis?” She said she did but didn’t know too much about him. I told her that one of his favored principles was “Make good trouble.” I suggested she might be doing what John Lewis asked of each of us.

“People who change the world, often make those around them uncomfortable. It’s impossible to nudge the world in new directions without being a burden in some lives,” I suggested. “If you want to change the world, be prepared to make good trouble. If you study the lives of activists, I think you’ll find they made many people uncomfortable.” She told me she just might do that.

When she told me she felt better and was no longer considering suicide, even though I wanted to hear more from this inspiring young woman, we ended the call.

Author, educator and philosopher, Neil Postman once wrote, “Children are the living messages we send to a world we will not see.” If, in our few moments together, that young woman began to discover a sense of who she is, and who she might become, perhaps I was blessed to witness a budding John Lewis, Greta Thunberg, Stacey Abrams, or Malala Yousafzai. If, in my lifetime, I do nothing more than send that one message to a future I will not see, perhaps that is enough.

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.

Oct 042020
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sep 282020
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sep 142020
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aug 132020
 

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

Dear Father LaGoe,

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am grateful beyond words.

Love,

Roger

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.

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 262020
 

The increasingly pervasive, oft vicious exchanges that permeate our lives, whether they be in person, in the media, or on social media, can easily overwhelm. Those, on top of trying to survive a global pandemic, make daily life ever more challenging.

The human brain is a marvelous, complex and adaptive organ that enables us to observe the world through our five senses and use those inputs to create a story of the world and how it works. We use those stories to guide us as we navigate our lives. But what happens if the stories, and our interpretations, are wrong or misguided? How often do we navigate poorly?

I often misinterpret the world and find myself navigating poorly. When I do, I am thankful to discover a beacon that helps me find my way. I am captivated whenever I am presented with a story, viewpoint, or interpretation that call some belief into question and I find myself exclaiming, “If that’s true…it changes everything!”

As examples of how we often create stories that can derail our lives, I present Kanizsa’s Triangle and The Sierpinski Triangle.

Kanizsa’s Triangle (Figure 1), drawn by Gaetano Kanizsa in the 1950s, arranges six independent green shapes to make your brain believe there are two triangles where there are none. Hundreds of times each day we take disparate pieces of sensory information and turn fragments into stories that are often misinformed, or totally untrue. We make political decisions based on sound bites. We treat people differently based on first impressions. We react to loved ones based on incomplete understanding.

The Sierpinski triangle (Figure 2) can be generated by starting at the red dot in Figure 3 and following two rules: pick one of the numbered dots at random, and, move from where you are halfway to that point to make an additional dot. If you do that thousands of times, you will always get the Sierpinski Triangle…always! That is astounding and terrifying.

It is astounding that two simple rules can create such complexity and beauty. It is terrifying because, if we follow those rules, we will remain in that pattern for all of eternity. How often do we find ourselves, often unconsciously, following rules in our lives and businesses? Those rules add beauty and complexity for a while, but we seldom want to remain in those patterns for all of eternity. How many of us, because of “shelter in place” during the COVID-19 pandemic, had to change normal “rules,” and how many of us will admit we found at least some of the new patterns refreshing?

The philosopher, Paul-Michel Foucault wrote, “The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning.” If today is the beginning, what will each of us do tomorrow to become someone we are not today? What might I allow myself to discover that requires me to cry, “If that’s true…it changes everything?”