Warrior of the Heart

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Warrior of the Heart

Article and photographs by Bri Morse

Tempered steel.  This is the term that John Thomas, or JT, uses to describe himself. “I have been subjected to more fire than you could ever imagine.  But I have decided that I still have a role to play.”  If you look it up, tempering is the use of extreme heat to increase toughness of the metal, while reducing the brittleness; a balance between strength and flexibility in other words.  This is the equilibrium that JT continually seeks despite the adversity he has faced.  His resilience is obvious as he recounts the painful parts of his life, frequently making jokes as if to lighten the mood and put things in perspective.  “You know how people say, ‘I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything’?  Well, I’m not going that far!” he pronounces with a deep laugh.  “If I could have changed a few things I would have definitely taken some detours along the way.”

So far JT’s main roles have been:  A father, personal trainer, fitness instructor, combat medic, deputy sheriff, drill sergeant, and Pentecostal minister (yes, you read right) to name a few.  He maintains that all of these roles have come with lessons that have been great teachers.  He says that the biggest challenge in life is to see the things that are not right with the world and deal with them in a constructive manner.  “No matter what happens I cannot destroy what is causing the problem.  Punishment may have its place, but it’s not the best teacher.  There are so many ways to facilitate people becoming more aware.  It’s an art to help people better their lives without hurting or offending them.  That’s when your light is shining from within, casting consciousness on the darkness you’re confronted with.”  These are powerful words coming from a man who was once not as evolved.  JT shares that when he was younger he had more of a temper and handled things in physical manner. 

“I think I’ve always been physical, because that is how I was brought into the world.  My father believed ‘if you spare the rod, you will spoil the child.’  By today’s standards he would have been a criminal.”  JT’s father was actually a Pentecostal minister in a remote town in the Mojave Desert. “My father’s family was full of crooks, gangsters, and thugs…they were penitentiary material.  He knew if we were going to have any chance of not going to prison or the cemetery early, he was going to have to remove us from his family, which is why we ended up living in the desert.  I have to give him credit for that, he didn’t want us to turn out to be criminals.  All he knew was ‘if I beat them, that’ll keep them straight.’  It was like, ‘I didn’t catch you doing anything wrong today, but tomorrow I’ll make up for it.’  He tries to make light of it and laughs, “Just like you make deposits at the bank, we deposited whippings.”

He continues, “As a kid, I always wanted to be reborn.  I used to pray that I could get a second chance to be born again because I didn’t come out right the first time.  Every day I was in constant fear because whatever I was going to do was not going to be right.”  JT says two of the most positive forces in his younger years was a couple in town by the name of Mr. & Mrs. Shelton.  He credits them for having an impact on how he ultimately turned out.  They introducing him to the performing arts, as they would invite him to take trips out of town to see theatre and opera.  Mr. Shelton also taught him landscaping.  Even though they had two daughters, he says they took him under their wings and loved him as if he were one of their own.  Still he adds, “I would come home from going to a musical with them, and my father would say, ‘I don’t know what they see in you.’”

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As a young boy and teenager some of JT’s idols were Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King, and even the singer Sam Cooke.  “I loved Ali because he was poetic and smooth, he could dance in the ring and I wanted to be like that.  I looked up to him because of his fighting but I didn’t agree with his religion at the time.”  The men that JT idolized were free thinkers, and they did not fall in line with his father’s puritanical beliefs.  “He thought they all were ‘ungodly and going to hell.’  Martin Luther King was out on the streets preaching freedom and civil rights; my father felt that everything you did should be behind the pulpit in a church house.”  He tells me as he shakes with laughter, “You can imagine if he thought King was a bad guy, I didn’t have a chance.  When I was a kid I wanted to be the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize.  I always had high aspirations.  I feel like the road I’ve been on hasn’t gotten me anywhere close where I wanted to be.  I really wanted to do something greater and have a bigger role in influencing people’s lives.”

JT says when he became a minister around 16 years of age, it was the only thing he did right in the eyes of his father. Though JT saw a lot of hypocrisy within his religion, he still thought it was a positive thing.  “I did seek to do good in the world, and that was what was offered to me at the time.”  His practice as a minister only lasted a year or so, before he was drafted for the Vietnam War.  Unlike his idol Ali, JT willingly entered the military.  He says his religion at the time said they could not bear arms, but could serve their country in a different capacity.  This is how JT became a combat medic.  He ended up lucking out, and was assigned to Korea last minute after graduating from training.  “I went into the military as green as a tomato.  I was a blank canvas, I got educated real quick and my perspective changed.  I went in a minister, and came back a menace.  I wanted to show the world how tough I was.  I went in this easy going evangelist trying to fix the world, when I returned I wanted to fix the world with my knuckles.”  He laughs shaking his head adding, “Still want to change the world, just have a different method now.”   

His mother and father had divorced by this time.  JT went to live with his mother who thought he had lost his mind because of his new combative mentality, and she kicked him out of her house. Also, within six or seven months of being home, JT’s father became gravely ill, and slipped into a diabetic coma.  He says this stopped him in his tracks.  “My mindset was, ‘Okay God, you have my attention.  You couldn’t get me, so you got my father.  I’m going to make you a deal;  You make my father better, and I will go back to being a minister.”  He settled in the San Mateo Bay area to start a whole new life as an evangelist as a part of his bargain with God.  “This is where at twenty years old I ended up getting married to a woman with four children.  I didn’t really want to get married to her at that time, but another preacher told me it was God’s will.” 

His father did end up getting better, and actually ended up living with JT for a short period.  “So you can see how much things have changed, here is my father living at my house and having dinner with me.  He actually asked me to put on my uniform, go to church, and sing A Change is Gonna Come, which was one of my favorite Sam Cooke songs.  This is the same guy that used to beat me when he caught me singing his songs when I was younger.”  JT explains that Sam Cooke songs were forbidden since Cooke went from singing gospel music to secular music, which made the music unbearable to his father.  “When he was sick I forgave him and all that stuff.  We made nice…” he trails off.  I ask if he truly was able to forgive his father in his heart.  “Yes I did.  When I think of my father I could cry.  This is what I know:  he had no roadmap and he hadn’t evolved.  Here was a guy that had great intentions, but unfortunately he was clueless.” 

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JT says he can’t go into detail, but his father’s childhood was very heavy and painful.  Despite all of this he affirms, “I believe that we really are good by nature.  I don’t believe that if someone didn’t teach us to be nice and kind that we wouldn’t be.  I think we come programmed that way.  A lot of us just don’t get a chance to discover it because of painful experiences or circumstances, but it’s there.”  JT tells me about the book The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran.  “That’s a must read, it’s very profound.  Some of his writing points out that all of us are capable of committing the most heinous crimes.  Gibran says if we don’t expose a higher level of consciousness, none of us can point the finger at those committing horrible acts.  We need to educate people in a fashion that makes them aware that what they are doing is harmful.  A lot of the time, we get caught up in destructive acts because we aren’t aware that they are destructive.  Jesus said, ‘where little is known, little is required.’  That’s what they are talking about when they say ‘raise consciousness.’  I don’t think everyone is at the same level of awareness.  My old self could never understand why others didn’t act a certain way, or how they could overlook things.  Jesus also said, ‘Some have eyes, yet they cannot see.’  Now I realize, not everyone sees what I see.  On the flip side, there are probably things I can’t see because I’m totally unaware of them.”

JT’s marriage in his early twenties lasted about four years, and also gave him a biological son and daughter of his own.  He says when he got divorced it was particularly painful because children were involved.  “I have been married four times,” he shares sheepishly, “all of them have been good learning experiences.  They say if you are looking for a partner or relationship then you first have to become the ideal person you are looking for.”  He laughs and says, “I guess I have a lot of work to do.” 

JT proclaims that the biggest blessings of his life have been his daughter, son and grandchildren.  “They are godsends, definitely a miracle.  I don’t know how it happened,” he laughs.  He recalls that he also used to make his kids as teenagers wake up at four or five am before school to work out and train with him.  He realizes in retrospect he pushed too much, and that “an Olympian mentality can’t be forced.”  JT shares that he tried to make the most of the love he had, but he feels he was too hard on his children and stepchildren.  “I regret it.  I was nowhere near the likes of my father, or I’d be in prison.  I tried to modify what I was exposed to.  I knew it wasn’t right, but I didn’t know any other way.  It really did hurt to punish them.”  He shares that he has come full circle with his viewpoint, and that the older he gets, the less tolerance he has for it.  “I really believe now no matter what, nobody has the right to put their hands on anyone like that.  God didn’t make us to grab each other to get our points across.  H.G. Wells said when two people are in an argument, ‘The man who raises a fist has run out of ideas.’  He laughs, “So now I try to never run out of ideas.”  He commends his daughter and son and how they consciously chose to raise their own children differently.  “My son said, ‘Dad we need to stop this cycle of abuse.’  My daughter and son are so beautiful.  They’ve both been the best teachers of my life.”

No matter what course his life took and how he may now regret some of his methods, it is clear that JT always wanted to help inspire people to be their best.  He feels his career as a fitness instructor and personal trainer is his best vehicle to do that.   He explains that the closer that he gets to his spiritual side, the more he realizes that our bodies are truly temples.  “The better you take care of it, the better your spirit can have a chance to do the things it would like to do and be a better channel.  They say God doesn’t judge, but the decisions that you make bring judgement.  Everything has a consequence, good or bad.  This brings the quality of the experiences you’re going to have.”  He also commends exercise as being an incredible outlet and tool for transformation.  “When I was younger I had asthma.  I was always in the nurse’s office; always that kid that had to be cared for.  I hated it.  Running helped me feel like it took away my sickness.  I never knew about meditation, and in my younger years I didn’t know a lot of philosophy, but I knew how to run.”  Now he says the speed bag, heavy bag, and rope work are the tools that help keep him strong and sharp.  “My therapy was always physical fitness.”

JT says he came into the world having difficulty breathing.  “As the Native Americans say, I have come full circle.  Here I am in the last chapter of my life fighting to breathe again.”  About two years ago, JT was diagnosed with amyloidosis of the liver.  It is a rare and life threatening disease with no cure currently.  It is a condition in which abnormal protein builds up in your tissues and organs.  For JT it causes excess fluid to put pressure around his lungs and heart, causing shortness of breath, among other symptoms.  JT is adamant that he doesn’t like to talk about it.  “Two years ago I was told I had five years to live. Congestive heart failure is the end of the road from me, supposedly.  I try not to think about it to give it attention.  I just keep going on.” 

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He reiterates that everything happens for a reason, even his upbringing.  "Some cultures believe that we choose our parents before we are born, right?  And I asked the question, 'Why would I choose someone that would beat me all the time?  Why would I make that decision?'  And do you want to know the answer I heard?  'Because you knew you could take it.'  I like to think I can deal with a lot of pain.  It has helped me with the condition I'm dealing with right now.  Most people don't even know that I'm coping with a life-threatening condition.  The doctor told me there's really no need for me to kill myself working out.  My friend who is a cardiologist that has ALS said, 'No.  You do whatever you can do that helps and is right for you.'  I have never wanted to be average.  Never.  That mediocre approach is not going to get you anywhere."

JT’s drive to keep pushing and growing is endless and constant.  Several years ago he found himself at the Center for Conscious Living in Moorestown, NJ, where he began broadening his spiritual horizons and studies.  Perhaps his strict religious background is what ultimately prompted him to seek a larger view.  “It was there that I learned about the different levels of consciousness.  The way things have been with traditional religion and perspective has made our mindsets geared up to think things are black and white.  I think most of us end up seeking insight from some unorthodox means. ”   JT says as he’s gotten older, he’s come to realize you can be spiritual without necessarily being religious.    

He also met a Native American friend at the Center, which peaked his interest even further in Native American spirituality.  Coincidentally JT actually has some Native American ancestry on his mothers’ side of the family.  On some subconscious level, maybe this was part of his pull to learn more about it.  He has participated in a Vision Quest and multiple Sun Dances.  “A Vison Quest is for you, while a Sun Dance is for the planet.”  He explains that he committed for four years to take part in these Sun Dances.  Each Sun Dance ceremony lasts four days and nights without food or water, and also requires fasting for about two days prior.  Traditionally, the participants are supposed to eat only one big meal the night before the ceremony begins after having fasted in preparation.  With enthusiasm, he details the main components of the ceremony.   “You go into a sweat lodge before and after the ceremony.  I was one of the dancers that danced around this ‘Tree of Life.’  The first year I fasted for longer than I had to and did not eat the big meal you are supposed to the night before.  I felt it would help me get closer to God than everyone else,” he laughs.  “So when the ceremony was officially underway, I was already depleted.  On the day we started to dance I collapsed the first round, I did get back up and finish everything.”  He tells me that some of the participants are unable finish the four days and have to go to the emergency room after fainting.  “Something spiritual has to take over to make it through.  Every year my family would tell me how crazy I was, especially after I got diagnosed with having amyloidosis.  I told them that if my sacrifice or life was going to make even one other life better, then it was worth it.  This was my mindset.”

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Though it may be true that JT’s life experiences have made him stronger in ways, it is clear that their greatest gifts were how he used them as catalysts for self-introspection.  He surmises that they ultimately made him more compassionate and reflective of the world in general.  “Whatever you want to create, your thoughts and actions will manifest.  Put what you want out into the universe then that is what you will create ultimately. A lot of times we don't realize that.  Albert Einstein always said the imagination is the most underrated aspect of us.  If you don't like the way things are imagine a better world, imagine yourself in a better situation. Even if it doesn't happen exactly as you thought it would play out, enjoy the imagination. When I was a kid I always imagined I would have a better life. I would embrace whatever experiences made me feel good.  The biggest thing I've learned now, is that the things that were tough for me weren't supposed to make me bitter, they were supposed to make me better.  It generally seems that the older people get the more negative they seem to become.  It is because what they've taken from their experiences were negative things.  They didn't find any miracle in them. They didn't find anything good. But it all depends on perspective I say. Perspective is our strongest guiding force.  They say if you can change your thinking you can change your life.  I'm still working on it, it’s ongoing.” 

At this point, JT looks at the clock in the gym where we have met for his interview.  He springs up energetically as he realizes his next class will be coming in soon.  Before he begins darting around the room to set up he adds on another layer of insight. “Jesus said, ‘Let the greatest among you be the servant.’ That’s greatness.  Service.  Purpose.  Grow your spirit.  Your spirit is here to make this world a lot better because of your presence.  You came here to be a contribution, in one way or another.  We’re all here for a reason.  We don’t all get the same starting point, it really doesn’t matter.  We have the ability to undo anything that has been done to us.  We have the power to choose.  I know that no matter what happens, there is something greater than I am.  It’s a journey as they say and it’s all unfolding as it is supposed to.  Whether we understand it or not, there is a grand scheme going on, and we all have a part in it.  Shakespeare said it best, right?  The world is a stage, and we all have a role to play.”

Click HERE to view JT's complete portrait gallery.

JT is a personal trainer and also currently teaches at La Belle Fit in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

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