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The First Lesson

PrintToday, my brother, Thomas Barnes, an honorably discharged marine, a telecommunications consultant and a second-year law student at the University of Baltimore shares the power of inner-kindness. He has seen more of the world than most, been exposed to the best and worse of it, and lent us his experiences in his story. Enjoy…

The forge is a curious place: there is no chaos, only precise order disguised as such. Everything was planned from the moment my feet hit the yellow foot-prints to the moment I saw my family on graduation day; the blacksmiths even timed the rising sun on the day the forge’s seal was pressed upon my heart. The young bar of steel is taught to yell constantly, day in and day out. We yell so loud and so long that we can feel the moment our voices crack and break, the moment our vocal chords give out. This is crucial in developing control over aggression, a critical skill during the soldiering process. We spit blood and we drive on, accepting the smiths’ relentless hammering. I was different though: by the end of the first week I was constantly gasping for air; a medical examination revealed pneumonia to be the cause. I spent three days recovering in isolation.

Pneumonia kills the elderly and infantile equally quickly, but I had it for three, sixteen-hour, many-thousand-calorie-burning days. The trick to surviving, initially at least, is much like riding a bicycle: stay moving or fall. But, if anyone sustains for too long, they simply die. A full recovery can take weeks, even months; I had days. My senior blacksmith knew how crippling pneumonia could be so he “went easy” on me. But on Friday morning I was thrown back into the fray. When there is a mission to accomplish, no matter what the state I am in, I must accomplish it. This is the mentality that separates “us” from “them.” The enemy looks for the weak and kills them first, so, never be weak. But I was injured; I was weak. So when I couldn’t even close my hand around a rope tightly enough to climb it, I was pulled aside and ridiculed by not a smith, but by one of the forgemasters, the minds behind the machine.

His eyes were cold and unfeeling; he looked upon me in the same fashion I would have looked upon a cockroach. His words were uncomfortably soothing, “I won’t blame you. It’s not your fault you can’t climb that rope. You’re weak. But it’s not your fault. It’s your father’s fault. He gave you weak genes. He let you get lazy. He let you fail. He’s probably as weak as you are. But it’s not your fault, it’s his because of his genes, and his father’s genes, and his father before him. You come from a line of weakness. You shouldn’t have come here.”

Slowly now… Are you paying attention?

Good. This is the first lesson, the most important one, because it is the foundation for all others. Close your ears and open your mind. Between now and the close of this lesson, nothing but you and I exist, not the noises behind you, the light around you, the smell in the air or its temperature upon your skin. Nothing else but you and me. Are you following?

You are walking across the street and a homeless man approaches you. He is unwashed and unshaven, wearing ripped and shredded clothing, and smelling like the rancid runoff from the streets of a drunken parade. He asks you for a dollar. You say “no.” He returns your rejection with cruel, malicious eyes and sneers, “You piece of garbage. You selfish worm. Everything you’ve ever done in life doesn’t mean a damn thing. You’re just a failure who’ll die alone, unloved and unwanted. Kill yourself. You are worthless.”

How do you feel?

Shocked, maybe, but it doesn’t hurt, right? It’s just some bum.

Now, focus: Who is the most important human being in your life? Your mother? Your father? Your husband? Your wife? Don’t just think of them, but say their name aloud, right now. Remember them and refresh their memory. When did you last see them? Can you remember what they were wearing? What they smelled like? The sound, the tone of their voice? Do this, and when you’re ready, I’ll continue.

You are walking across the street and the most important person in your life approaches you. This person is unwashed and unshaven, wearing ripped and shredded clothing, and smelling like the rancid runoff from the streets of a drunken parade. This person, now having fallen on hard times, asks you for a dollar. You reach for your wallet only to realize you left it elsewhere. You have no money to give them, so you say “no.” This person returns your rejection with cruel, malicious eyes and sneers, “You piece of garbage. You selfish worm. Everything you’ve ever done in life doesn’t mean a damn thing. You’re just a failure who’ll die alone, unloved and unwanted. Kill yourself. You are worthless.”

How do you feel?

It hurt, didn’t it? Those words struck you to your core, knowing someone you care so much for could say something so horrible. But why?

No, it has nothing to do with the words, so don’t say that. It is more complicated than that. What was it about the two people then?

It doesn’t matter that the first person was a bum and the second person was your idol, either. Both called you garbage. Both called you worthless. So, what was the difference? Are you saying it’s the person saying it?

No. It has nothing to do with that. One thousand people could call you worthless, but only the person you care about could hurt you. Why? Why do some words hurt, but others please? Why do some words cut your gut out, but others fill you with elation? How does this happen? Think. You already know the answer.

That’s right. The force behind words isn’t given by the person casting them, but by you and you alone.

My father is the most important man in my life. For those who know me, beyond a shadow of a doubt, they know this to be true. As the forgemaster slung his hot embers upon me though, he had no clue that these were the most potent, most perfectly selected words to strike me with. I think, to this very day, that he knew it too, because he said so with a smug smile. He expected me to break.

I would like to say that the words crashed into me, like water upon rock. But they did not. To say they did would mean that I acknowledged them, that they hit me to begin with. Even a drop of water, over eons, can carve mountains. For it to crash into me would also imply that I resisted it. But there was nothing to resist to begin with. He did not know me.

Our eyes met and he grew angry. I had not given him the reaction he wanted. I stood there, unaffected. I had given his words absolutely no power; I let his words passed through me. I did not think the forgemaster was better or worse than me. I did not pity or idolize him. I did not ignore or acknowledge his existence, either. In simplest terms, his words meant nothing because I chose to let them mean nothing.

To this day, when I am training the new blades fresh from the forge, this is the first lesson I teach. It prepares the student for all the rest. Some accept the lesson and some do not, much like in Plato’s Cave. Those that do begin to understand that they have the power to change the lens they use to look at the world.

Published inWinter of Kindness