Nature has been my passion since early childhood. Therefore it was an
unexpected detour when I was drawn down a path of learning that awakened me to unrelated
basic truths about reality; namely that metals constitute the majority of the basic ingredients in
the Universe and that metallic minerals, and the metals that they contain, make modern
The latter truth should be evident to everyone, but many are surprising oblivious to our utter
dependance on metals, much as I was before my “metallurgical enlightenment.” This
disconnection motivated me to do what I can to help increase appreciation of how
human survival is linked to the earthly bounty hidden below our feet.
Since ancients first extracted copper from colored rocks around their fires, humans have
developed techniques to separate an increasing number of useful metals and chemical
compounds from their mineral hosts. We all learned that the major periods of societal
development are defined by the particular materials that defined cutting edge technology at
the time: Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age.
It seems that many people assign this linkage of man and minerals to history, and don’t realize
that we are more metal-dependent now than ever. Consider that an average American over the
course of a lifetime will use 750 pounds of zinc, 800 pounds of lead, 1500 pounds of copper,
3593 pounds of aluminum, and 32,700 pounds of iron. These are just the basic ingredients,
and nowhere near all that is required to make modern life comfortable. Our computers, for
example, contain over 65 minerals, and cars… forget it. Mineral-derived metals are either
found in or used to produce virtually everything in our modern day surroundings.
I have pondered what life would be like without the modern conveniences. No matter how
optimistically I tried to imagine my Stone-Age existence, I concluded that I would be lucky to
survive a few weeks. Yogi Berra’s wise saying “The future ain’t what it used to be” could be
applied to the likely outcome of my ill-fated primitive existence. To that I would add “The past
ain’t what it used to be either.”
The periodic table, is a catalogue of all the basic stuff, the known elements, that exist in the
universe. To me, the elements, and the way they behave are the fundamental tracks left behind
by whatever made the “world” around us, from a great big cosmic nothingburger.
Since humans have been humans, we have debated our origin with no universal consensus as
yet attained. As we all know, people can be pretty particular when it comes to their own view of
creation and have been known to wage war to defend their opinions. I will not enter this debate
but will offer an indisputable clue on the subject, toward which we might all unite and focus
our attention. Drum roll please… Since the vast majority of the elements are metals or
metalloids, I can say with certainty that whatever forces gave rise to the universe had an
inordinate fondness for metals.
Having brought attention to our common, metallic roots, I must admit the sad fact that many
metals don’t occur by themselves in nature and those that do are mostly grayish amorphous
lumps of visually unappealing matter. Fortunately for us visually-oriented metal-lovers, gold,
silver and copper are three notable exceptions, and each can naturally form some of the most
amazingly beautiful objects that the Earth has to offer. Of course humans have obsessed over
gold through the millennia, but my personal favorite are the reddish, branching, plant-like
fronds of native copper.
However, it wasn’t the metals that first captured my attention, it was the spectacular minerals
My eyes were drawn by the beautiful form and color of fluorite, the seductive green of
malachite, the rugged look of galena and the graceful curves of kidney hematite. I began
collecting minerals and from the shelves, they beckoned me to learn more about them. It
became apparent early on, that almost every one of them contains metals that are used to
construct our modern world.
Copper in malachite is used for just about everything electrical, the lead in galena is used to
make car batteries among other things, while the iron extracted from hematite forms the
skeletons of cars, buildings and tools.
Despite the boundless history of science and technology that stands behind even the most
mundane household objects, for some it is enough to know that electricity comes from outlets
and that tools come from hardware stores.
Just as my interest in metals and minerals has evolved, metals and minerals have
evolved over the course of deep time. Apparently minerals, like living organisms can become
“extinct”. Unlike with their living counterparts, extinct minerals can come back to
“life” should conditions change. The evolution of life and the consequent
oxygenation of the atmosphere has helped to make our very own planet Earth the most
mineral-rich corner of the known universe.
Just as metals are extracted from minerals, minerals themselves are extracted from the ground.
The messy business of mining is an inescapable part of human existence today, as it has
been for thousands of years. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of the smoldering
waste coal piles in the anthracite region of Pennsylvania where my grandfather worked in the
mines. He lived a harsh life and died relatively young, probably due to the horrendous
conditions in the mines. Still, as messy as mining can be, none of us would be here without it.
Of course, there are right and wrong ways to do mining and places where mines simply don’t
belong. Mark Twain described a mine as “a hole in the ground owned by a liar.”
However, Twain, by his own account, received his comeuppance from a miner in Red Dog
California in 1866. He was about to address a group of gold miners when one of them was
enlisted to introduce him. The miner reluctantly obliged and said that he didn’t really know
Twain but could at least say two things about him: “One is, he has never been in jail; and the
other is, I don’t know why.”
My awareness of the importance of the man-metal connection was reinforced when I toured a
British anthropological museum. I had twenty minutes to see a vast collection before closing
time, and didn’t have time to digest what I was seeing. However, the significance of what I
saw caught up to me upon later reflection. I couldn’t help but think about the number of
devices made from metal that people have used over the centuries to subdue other humans,
from swords, cannons and caltrops, (which I had never heard of), to modern day rockets and
jets. Although there have been massive volumes written on the subject I now submit my
summary of this aspect of history with the following alliteration: “Men Who Master Metals
Master Men.” This catchy phrase can be used to explain the outcomes of most geopolitical
events, including conquests and wars and saves the time of rummaging through the musty
tomes that have been devoted to such historical matters.
On the same trip to Britain I was nearly blown of the mountain at the Parys mine in Wales,
where copper has been mined since the early Bronze Age, nearly 4000 years ago.
Copper from this ancient mine was used for the advancement of metal technology which
eventually led to the Industrial Revolution and the advent of the modern creature comforts.
Sadly, during the dark days of slave trading, copper from the Parys mine was used to make
At the nearby ancient copper mines on the Great Orme, Bronze Age miners dug
underground in cramped shafts which have been partially excavated and opened to the
public. There I saw the marks that they left in the walls with their primitive bronze tools. These
visits further impressed on me how mining and metals have been linked with the human
experience since the dark recesses of humanity.
My metal quests have taken me to other strange places like an Amish church in
Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Here, I struggled to pick out the few words of German that I
recognized and keep from falling asleep during the lengthy proceedings. The family that I was
there to visit owned the property where a nickel mine existed that once supplied a large portion
of the country’s nickel during the 19th century. All that is left of the once thriving operation is
I have pondered ways to communicate, to an often unreceptive world, the lessons that I have
learned about mines, minerals, metals and men. Being a photographer, I decided to get this
message across in a visual form. I have done so by creating a set of artworks composed of
intricately arranged metal objects which I call “metal mandalas”, after pieces done by Tibetan
have scoured antique shops, hardware stores and yard sales for photogenic metal objects of
various uses and vintages to help make the point of how important metals are to us all, even
though we don’t always recognize it.
I hope that the reader can take time to ponder these images and the fact that not only do metals
comprise the majority of the basic building blocks of the Universe, but that from them we have
fashioned the majority of the technology necessary for our survival.
I remember the scene vividly: We were barreling southward, along the narrow highway, bound for Ecuador, in a small bus in the high Andes of Colombia. The driver was going way too fast for the conditions. I gazed in awe at the incredibly steep valley that descended precipitously from the road to a river a mile or so below. Then I heard a loud noise, I think that we hit a rock in the road. Suddenly we were sailing off the road, rolling over again and again, people flying everywhere, headed to what I thought was certain death. What I believed to be my final thought in this Earthly realm, was a vision of souls uniting, the ultimate expression of human unity. I reached out to my fellow passengers with unfiltered, raw love in an acute realization of our common plight…the human condition. I drew great comfort from the stunning image of our shared predicament. As I prepared to meet my maker, suddenly and unexpectedly, the bus stopped rolling. It had miraculously come to rest on a narrow ledge, the only ledge before oblivion. I had been given a second life and I was resolved to make the most of it.
That day in Colombia I saw that embracing all humans as equals is at the very core of my soul, and perhaps because of my near-death experience, that feeling has grown even stronger over the years. That is why I feel so deeply troubled by the current racial tensions in our country, where people are pitted against each other on the basis of skin color. I find this practice unnatural and abhorrent and I can assure you that on my way to what I thought was my own end, I didn’t stop to think that I was “white” and the other people on the bus were ”people of color.” Therefore, I now feel a compelling urgency to speak out against the increasingly common, hateful practice of artificially dividing people in this way.
Having lived in a “white” world for decades and now married to an African woman and living amongst “people of color,” in the most diverse community in America, I can now report what we all know anyway: humility, joy, hope, forgiveness, gratitude, disappointment, faith, empathy, passion and everything else human come in only one flavor. There is no chocolate forgiveness or vanilla gratitude.
Recently, I became involved in volunteering at a 150 year-old rural Black church near my home. I took an African American friend and his family to see the church the other day. Then something special happened. His 91 year old mother, Miss Ann, was overcome with joy to the point of tears by the church and the antique relicts on display. It brought her back to happy times. She spoke of family, community and song. Suddenly she started singing “Old Time Religion.” Years ago, I had been drawn to that very song as a youth on a tape of Negro spirituals that I uncovered in the college library. I joined in and we performed a duet that was decades in the making and represents the work of one of the most unlikely duos imaginable. Although Miss Ann had experienced race-based hatred in the bad old days, she had emerged with her strength and dignity intact. That day a strong connection was formed that cut effortlessly across race, age and gender differences, because they didn’t matter to either of us. Why should they?
Unlike the real chasm that my bus was headed down, this pigment-based chasm between people is a man-made, imaginary abomination. I proved this point to myself again recently when, after church, an adorable, four-year-old African American girl appeared at my feet and looked up at me. I couldn’t resist her charm and lifted her and tossed her up in the air. She was overcome with glee so I did it a couple more times to the sound of uproarious laughter. When I set her down she looked up again and studied me intently. I was sure that she noticed our different color and was going to tell me about it. I was in part right about her thoughts. She did notice a difference, however instead of commenting on our respective skin pigmentation, she looked me in the eyes, put her hand on her head and asked earnestly,“where is your hair?” “Mine is here,” she offered instructively. Then she calmly walked away with her hand still atop her head and a smile on her face. I treasure that experience. That little girl knew that skin pigmentation is of no consequence, at least not compared to the amount of hair on your head.
If anyone feels tempted to preach the gospel of racial division to that innocent young girl or my friend Miss Ann, on opposite ends of life’s journey, I suggest that you go outside at night and cast a glance skyward. Having gazed upon the firmament, ask yourself how can we not resign ourselves to the fact that we are all somersaulting together through a vast universe heading towards who-knows-where, just like my bus. If at that point human skin pigmentation still matters to you, then only God can help! Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the Pearly Gates image is true. Do you really think that when its all over, and you get to heaven, there will be a line for “whites” and a line for “people of color”? That sounds more like hell to me! Jesus and Muhammad both spoke of human oneness shortly before they departed this Earth. I feel that it is no coincidence that their words, which were unknown to me at the time, exactly describe the vision that I had when I thought my time was up in Colombia. That day on the mountainside, I envisioned souls melting together, just as voices in a choir blend in perfect harmony. I long for the day when everyone can see the obvious truth that we are all equally important parts of the human choir and reach out to embrace their fellow choristers, whatever their color, as I found myself doing on that runaway bus years ago.
As MLK espoused, may we judge people by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. Better yet, may we strive not to judge at all and view each other with mutual respect and understanding.
I met Pauline and Ben on their ranch in Arizona. I sensed that in these two was the type of decency and true grit that is painfully rare these days. In short order I found myself staying on the ranch and feeling like I was part of the family. They were equally welcoming to my wife, who is from Africa, and we both have lasting memories of the ranch and Pauline. By the time that we met her, Pauline’s condition was challenging, and yet I never heard her complain. She only dealt in kindness. She was always warm, always welcoming and always looking for ways to spread her warmth to people and puppies. Because of the purity of her own heart, she saw the good in everyone and sometimes overlooked the less noble traits in some. I have always fantasized about being a rancher. Her intelligence was obvious when she shared her knowledge about the economics of ranching, which is a subject that fascinates me. Through discussions with Pauline and Ben I learned the sure-fired way to have a million dollars in the bank as a rancher….start with three million!
As I think about her passing, songs lamenting the passing of the days of the Old West circulate in my head. To me the life of “Home Home on the Range” is but a fantasy, but it was her reality. Sadly, as “progress” marches on, this reality is becoming increasingly endangered. When I think of the madness engulfing our cities, I can take refuge in thoughts of being on the ranch with Pauline and Ben, with room to roam, surrounded by nature and the country comfort of decent people. Happy trails Pauline.. till we meet again.
Last summer I drove cross-country from Maryland to Southern Arizona and back again. By the time I was half way through the return trip I was very tired of driving and looking for any form of diversion to take away the boredom. Then I hit Kansas and things got even worse as far as areas of topographic and other scenic interest, so I searched for other ideas to break up the monotonous drive and have a bit of fun. It is easy to poke fun at Kansas as being a dull, flat state where the most exciting thing on offer is to watch the corn grow or visit the world’s largest ball of twine. A survey that I read calls Kansas the tenth most boring state in the Union. Somehow being the tenth most boring seems even more boring than being the most boring. When I hit Liberal, Kansas I had a choice, should I make a pilgrimage to the “International Pancake Day Hall of Fame”, or find something else to do. I chose the latter and, for a laugh, I went to the Liberal police station and somehow managed to talk them out of a Liberal Police patch. I’m not sure if I view this prize as representing police that are “liberal” or police policing “liberals”. Given the local political climate I would say that the latter is a more accurate interpretation. However, neither applies as Liberal got its name from an early settler named S.S.Rogers who gave water away for free to travelers passing through, who replied, “That is mighty Liberal of you”. Whatever meaning you might ascribe to it, my prize is proudly displayed on the refrigerator. Next to it is the the equally prized badge obtained in Galena, Kansas, whose meaning is unambiguous: galena is one of my favorite minerals.
Although it was hard to outdo these police patch adventures, I somehow managed. East of Liberal the road crosses the mighty Cimarron river. I parked the car and set off under the long bridge to have a look. Unfortunately the only water that I found in the Cimarron was in the depression formed by a lone cowprint. I was so desparate for stimulation that I stood transfixed while photographing and videoing this little puddle for an entire afternoon. I can say without doubt that it wasn’t abject boredom or too much summer sun that had me staring at this puddle so intently. It was what I saw happening in this micro-lacustrine world that still has me amazed. When I first saw this track I noticed a few grasshoppers swimming in it. This didn’t instantly set my curiousity ablaze until I noticed other grasshoppers coming to these already orthopteran-laden waters and themselves diving in. Could it be that the grasshoppers, like me, were desperate for entertainment in these dog days of Kansas? But, cheap anthropomorphism acknowledged, it didn’t seem to be recreational in nature. The hoppers took the plunge, struggled a while and then died. The longer I watched, the more my little puddle filled up with hapless drowning hoppers. I had never seen anything like this and had no idea about what was going on in this bizarre scene.
Months later, I did some research and figured out what must have been happening that day. Turns out larval, parasitic nematode worms sometimes reside in the gut of grasshoppers and crickets. It has been shown that when the worms mature inside their hosts they begin producing proteins that mimic grasshopper nuerochemicals and apparently drive the alien-possessed insects to water where the worms emerge as adults, mate and lay their eggs. These worms have their way with each other with the husks of their former hosts littering the scene. It doesn’t sound like the most romantic scene but the worms don’t seem to mind. By the time adult worms are ready to emerge they must veritably explode from their host’s now useless bodies as they are many times larger than their poor victims. Since I didn’t have a clue what I was witnessing as I photographed this scene, I didn’t notice any worms in the murky puddle-water at the time. It wasn’t until I wrote this account that I looked closely at the photos that I took that fateful day and Eureka… I think that I can just make out the faint, ghostly outline of one of these bizarre parasites in the muddy water!
Although it might appear otherwise, I actually love the people, places and natural history of Kansas. Where else could you go to find tornados carrying houses away to the Land of OZ, police friendly enough to indulge a flight of fancy or, more significantly, suicidal, alien-possessed grasshoppers plunging into cow print puddles?
Since I was about ten years old, the words and melody of the Kingston trio’s version of the Irish folksong “Mountains of Mourne” have been affectionately lodged in my brain. I had wanted to go to Ireland for years having liked every Irish person that met. Therefore, it seems inevitable that one day, I would make my way to the Emerald Isle. When I heard that my friend Will Watson, an eccentric English naturalist, was going to Ireland, and could use a field assistant, I jumped at the chance to tag along. Will had been awarded a contract to study saproxylic beetles in Castlewellan Forest Park. As everyone knows, saproxylic beetles feed on dead and rotting wood. In the long history of Irish-American relations, I was probably the only American to visit Ireland on a trip undertaken with the express purpose of studying saproxylic beetles. As fate would have it, Castlewellan Forest Park is near the base of the very Mountains of Mourne that inspired my beloved song. While searching for saproxylic beetles, singing the “Mountains of Mourne” to myself, I began stripping bark off rotten logs. I uncovered the motherlode, a handful of the rather attractive longhorn beetles known as Rhagium mordax or the Black-spotted longhorn beetle. Having found and photographed the gold standard of Irish saproxylic beetles, I began wondering the gardens in search other photographic prey. Since we were there in October it was pretty slim pickings, but I did manage to locate some photogenic green shield bugs which presented themselves in some rather pleasing arrangements. Having located several groups of bugs I returned to the same spots hoping for the right combination of weather, light and bug arrangement.
With photos of saproxylic beetles and green sheild bugs under my belt, meeting the Irish people became my focus. The first person that I met was Alwyn Sinnamon, the head gardener of the Annesley gardens, located within the park. Adopting my ignorant American abroad mode, I asked Alwin about the habits of the local leprechauns. I thought of my questioning as a bit of whimsical nonsense, but Alwin told me that there are serious superstitions that influence the locals regarding leprechauns. He told me that Leprechauns are believed by some to dance below hawthorn trees, locally known as “fairy trees.” I was told in all seriousness that cutting down these trees leads to bad luck. I later met an elderly gentleman walking through the park who gave me a lengthy recitation of examples of such luck brought on by felling fairy trees. His examples ranged from being impaled by the falling branches to sudden deaths in the family. I saw fairy trees left in the middle of fields which require special negotiating when plowing time comes. Perhaps the most dramatic evidence that I heard about regarding this superstition was the time when a major highway was rerouted in order to avoid cutting down a fairy tree.
During my conversations with Alwin about Irish culture, I was reminded of the long-standing history of economic disparity and civil strife in the country. He showed me a photograph of an obviously poor, barefoot, young woman, heavily laden with firewood. The photograph was taken in the 1890’s, on the Annesly estate, (what would become Castlewellan Forest Park), by Hugh Annesley, the resident Anglo-Irish Earl. I couldn’t stop staring at the photograph. Her intense stare somehow pierced my soul and, without words, spoke to me about what it was like to be on the wrong side of the injustice and oppression that dominated Irish history throughout the centuries. I wonder if Annesly was troubled by the vast difference between his opulent life and the palpably hardscrabble life of his subject, living on the same estate.
I heard so many stories about historical conflict in Ireland that I got confused. Was it the English against the Irish, the Protestants against the Catholics or the rich against the poor? My best synopsis is the rich English Protestants pitted against the poor Irish Catholics. Things got so bad that over a million starved and a million more fled the island during the famous Irish potato famine between 1845 and 1849, when the potato blight fungus wreaked havoc with the potato crop. Problems didn’t stop there and it is hard for me to imagine that just 20 years ago the Northern Irish were at each other’s throats in the most recent manifestation of this chronic conflict locally referred to as “the troubles”. The violence was at times stupifying. Neighbors killed neighbors, in brutal and cruel fashion.
Given the tumultuous and often violent history of the Emerald Isle, you would think that the people would be warlike and aggressive. What I found was the exact opposite. Although it is dangerous to generalize, I would go as far as to say that everyone I met on my trip was friendly and unpretentious. I had many pleasant conversations throughout my trip. Most people even laughed at my jokes which is always a plus to me, even if the jokes are often corny. In other words, I really seemed to click with almost everyone that I met. I spoke with many about the political problems of the past and the past is where all that I spoke to would like to leave these “troubles”. I still don’t get how the warm, friendly nature of the people fits the troubled, violent history of the country. Then again, injustice can bring out the survival instincts in anyone.
I had the quintessential pleasant Irish experience when I met George Millar of the Irish Rovers, a famous folk group, in a pub in Bush Mills. George and the Irish rovers have traveled the world as purveyors of Irish music for more than 50 years. He had plenty of stories to tell. One of his yarns that I found particularly interesting involved Nick Reynolds, the lead singer of the Kingston trio, whose voice introduced me to “The Mountains of Mourne”. According to George, who often played in the same venues as the Kingston Trio, Reynolds was diminutive in stature. In spite of this he had a pugnacious nature, and would frequently initiate bar room brawls, many of which George had witnessed.
I don’t normally frequent places frequented by masses of tourists. However, I made an exception for Northern Ireland. One of the main tourist draws were sites used in the filming of “Game of Thrones,” a television series that I never saw. One of the most popular “Game of Thrones” sites was the beech tree lined lane known as “Dark Hedges.” Northern Ireland also boasts one of the most popular geological attractions in the world, the columnar basalt pillars known as Giants Causeway. They were formed during an ancient lava flow. It was difficult photography this fantastic formation, since there were either hundreds of people climbing all over the formation or there was torrental driving rain making photography next to impossible. I had my best luck right before dark when the place was strangely deserted and I had the magical scene to myself.
I was so moved by the feelings that the beauty of Ireland and its people envoked in me that I wondered if there was something more to this connection than met the eye. When I returned to the States, I did some geneological research. Unbeknownst to me, my great, great grandfather, John Smith, was from Ardglass, a stone’s throw from Castlewellan! Like so many others, he left Ireland for Liverpool during the potato famine. Smith later went to New Jersey where he met his future wife, Mary Kieron, whose family had also fled the famine in Ireland. When I told this news to my friend Alwin, he said that he knew all along that I had Irish blood. Although I never heard anything about Irish blood in my family, while in Ireland I certainly felt it , and now I know why.
Some years ago I got involved in photographing the Dalai Lama when he came to Ithaca, New York, where I was living at the time. I didn’t know that much about him, but I could see that he meant the world to many, from the size of the crowds that lined up for what seemed like miles to hear his words of wisdom. From the priveledged position afforded me as an official photographer I listened to him for nearly a week speak of forgiveness, kindness and for a change a little more forgiveness. He was almost childlike and he seemed sincere. Although I was more focused on photography than his message, some of his words must have registered for reasons that I will now explain.
Shortly before the Dalai Lama’s visit, I became involved in a rather nasty confrontation with a person in Ithaca. The level of animosity that I felt was considerable and might have even risen to the rarified atmosphere of hatred. The details aren’t important as long as you understand the intense negativity that thoughts of this person evoked in me.
During the Dalai Lama’s visit he took part in a panel discussion at a large theater and I was charged with photographing the event. I wanted to get a clear shot of His Holiness and positioned myself alone in one of the entrance halls on the second floor. I was quite far from the stage so I used my long 500 millimeter super telephoto lens, that I normally use to photograph wildlife. The auditorium was abuzz as the packed crowd eagerly awaited the arrival of the honored guest. In spite of the distractions I readied my equipment then something amazing happened. When I trained my lens on the Dalai Lama I couldn’t believe my eyes! I was frozen in place as waves of electricity sweeped over me in a way that I will never forget. What happened next was the closest thing to a miracle that I have witnessed. Just thinking about that scene can bring back the chills. When I put my eye to the camera, who should appear in the viewfinder along with the world’s most noteworthy living Prince of Forgiveness, but the very person that I thought that I hated, the one person in the universe that I most needed to forgive!!! In that moment I felt that the Universe, (and the Dalai Lama) called me by name and I had no choice but to listen, and it changed me forever. Instantly my anger left me and to this day I have nothing but fond feelings for the formerly despised individual. To add to my remarkable experience, I found out later that the person in question experienced a similar reaction towards me that very same day.
Recently, a decade after my time with the Dalai Lama, I experienced another challenge with anger towards another person that I have butted heads with for years. This “frenemy” had said something that really offended me. I was hoping to avoid the toxic effects of a building anger which I learned the hard way, only hurts the person feeling the anger. I wrestled with the growing feelings of resentment and searched for a strategy to defeat them. Then came another personal message from the universe: who was it that got me involved in the Dalai Lama photo project? Why it was none other than the current recipient of my anger! So I reved up the “Forgiveness Machine” and, remarkably, it still worked! Once again, although not as dramatic as the first time, forgiveness and relief came almost instantly using the “Forgiveness machine”! I don’t know if the machine will work on people not tied to the Dalai Lama, but fortunately, I’m running out of people that I need to forgive.
The same week as the second coming of the “Forgiveness Machine”, I had some African friends over to my home and told them what to me were my amazing stories of how the Dalai Lama stepped in to help me to forgive. I was proud and considered myself a forgiveness meister of sorts. The conversation then turned to my friend’s childhood in Liberia. I asked her if she had experienced any of the ugliness during the wars over there. She calmly told stories of how, at the age of seven, she had seen people killed and had bullets passing through her family house on a regular basis. One one occasion one of her neighbors, turned self-proclaimed warlord, came to their house and demanded to be fed. He came looking for any members of the opposing tribe, the Krahn. He said that if he found the family harboring any of these people he would kill them and my friend’s family immediately. It turns out that they were indeed sheltering a group of Krahn people, who could be recognized by their lighter skin color. Before the nasty neighbor entered the house, all but one of the Krahn refugees had hidden. Then the only one that didn’t make into hiding, a young woman, had to serve the meal to the uninvited “guest”. For some reason he didn’t make the connection and they were all saved, at least for that day. The entire family soon fled to Ghana and eventually made their way to the States. Fittingly she later married a Ghanaian man. Through pure chance I met her and invited her, her husband, and another friend of theirs to my house. The woman that I found sitting in front of me that day had all the dignity and peaceful demeanor that a human being could muster. She seemed to have no signs of anger or bitterness after having suffered some of the worst atrocities known to humankind. It was me that drew the stories from her. She seemed fine telling them but, once again, I did not detect a shred of bitterness coming from her. Then it hit me. I’m here telling her the story of my heroic efforts of forgiveness. She who had seen hell and me who in the second case, had experienced something as trivial as critisism of my frog pond! That day I learned something more than forgiveness, I learned humility! I also learned the utter insignificance of “difficulties” that I have endured, compared to others.
It later occurred to me that my Liberian friend is a devout Christian. Could it be that her faith had armed her to cope with her difficult history in such a graceful way? As a Christian she was able to invoke the help of perhaps the heaviest hitter of all when it comes to the industrial strength forgiveness that she needed. Whatever the case may be, I will always treasure the gift of forgiveness that the Universe and the Dalai Lama gave me, and my Liberian friend for putting my experience in perspective.