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Lessons Learned from Elephants

What was it that drew me to like visiting my great grandma? For an active young teenage boy, there wasn't much to do there. Most of the neighbors seemed to be about 85 years old. Their activities were walking the dogs, feeding the quail, playing ping-pong and watching TV - most of which didn't appeal to to me. However, a TV documentary I saw there about the rise in elephant attacks and the assumed causes, caught my attention and taught me a lesson I've never forgotten.

The program showed multiple scenes of elephants attacking villagers in Africa and even spectators at circus performances. What could lead elephants to attack humans? Loss of habitat causes elephants to wander closer to villages and to interact with humans, creating problems both for people and animals. Adult elephants not only attacked people but were also killed by the humans they attacked. It is believed that the behavior of young elephants is profoundly affected by witnessing the acts of violence. As I watched, I began to think about my own family life which involved drugs, mental abuse and domestic violence. Subconsciously, I identified with the rage in the elephants. I had felt that bubbling rage for a long time and felt helpless to control it. I often felt hopeless and afraid that I would one day just give up.

While these thoughts of hopelessness rolled around in my brain, the Discovery Channel documentary began to describe a remarkable difference between typical young elephants and these "teenage" African elephants. Elephants are known to be very intelligent, to have long memories and to live together in tight family herds. When compared to normal elephants, the traumatized ones, who had witnessed violent deaths of their relatives and were under the influence of raging adult elephants, were more aggressive, had higher testosterone levels and higher sex drives, all resulting in violent behavior. However, conservationists discovered that when the angry young elephants were moved into a population of older, un-traumatized adults, these indicators of social and behavioral maladjustment began to change. Their testosterone levels and aggressiveness began to drop and even their sex drives began to fall into normal patterns. How did this happen? Somehow, interaction with the older, normal elephants had an enormous impact on the young, angry elephants. As a young boy I didn't understand what was happening but now I would say that the older elephants became mentors to the young elephants. I had identified with the young, angry elephants and was seeking older people whose lives I wanted to emulate. I began to identify and spend time with people who had the kind of houses and cars I wanted but I was also attracted by the different kind of lives they lived. I now realize that they changed my life by becoming mentors to me.

In my book "Dad in a Day: When My Mom's Kids Became My Own", I recount my own experience of growing up with no positive role models at home and how I found what I needed in the church. Men, women and families brought me into their lives, helping me through challenging times and also sharing in happy times. They weren't social workers or therapists, although I had those, but they served a vital role in changing my life. As they invited me in, I saw them laughing and joking around the table, I worked with them on home remodeling projects and even watched how they handled conflict. I got an insider's perspective as they interacted, showed love and concern for each other and handled disagreements without ugly words or violence. They were there when I needed someone to talk to when things were going badly or just needed to be told I was acting like a knucklehead. I will always be thankful to those "mentors" who listened to me and helped me realize that I didn't need to let my circumstances dictate my decisions then or in the future. Like the healthy adult elephants changed the angry young elephants, my mentors changed my life forever!


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