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.