Volume 18 Number 3
A Lifetime of Sticking His Neck Out
01 June 2005
It took a shipwreck to turn John Graham into a giraffe. David Allen talks to an adventurer, peacemaker and risk-taker extraordinaire.
I studied the rugged outdoorsman and ex-diplomat sitting before me in the small coffee shop in Langley in the state of Washington in the US Pacific Northwest.
On the surface, I felt I already knew the essential details of the life of the rather public John Graham-author, public speaker, adventurer, former diplomat turned international peacemaker and ubiquitous community activist.
I was aware of Graham's long service as Executive Director of the Giraffe Heroes Project, founded by his wife, Ann Medlock, which urges people to stick their necks out to make a difference in their world. Since 1982, it has identified people all over the globe who have bravely taken on the toughest problems in their communities and brought about change. The project spreads their stories to local and national news media and through speeches and workshops, with the aim of encouraging others to follow their example. Its schools programmes have reached a quarter of a million schoolchildren, from kindergarten upwards, in half a dozen countries.
Rangy and still athletic at 62, John Graham has lived a life of outsized adventures. At age 20, he was on the team that made the first direct ascent of the north wall of North America's tallest mountain, 20,320-foot Mt McKinley. He hitchhiked around the world at 22.
JOHN WAYNE WANNABE
As a US Foreign Service Officer he was in the middle of the revolution in Libya and the war in Vietnam, and was deeply involved in US initiatives in Southern Africa, South Asia and Cuba. By his account, he'd defied violent death a dozen times before he reached 40. For three years in the mid-seventies, at the peak of the Cold War, he was a member of NATO's top-secret Nuclear Planning Group.
His life reads like an improbable high-action adventure story. But there sat this quiet and reflective man. Struggling to bring these two pictures into focus, I tendered the question, 'Who is John Graham?' Graham paused-and slowly began to share a personal journey which was in many ways even more remarkable than the biography of his adventures.
Many watershed experiences have shaped the inner man. The first came when Graham, then serving as a political officer and advisor to the South Vietnamese, was trapped in the city of Hué, which was under attack from the North Vietnamese Army. He describes himself at the time as a 'John Wayne wannabe', who had risked his life many times and hurt other people in the process.
'Enemy forces were only six miles away. The ground shook from the explosion of bombs and artillery shells. A quarter of a million refugees were streaming into the panicked city. Looters had burned the market place. As an advisor to the Mayor of Hué, I demanded that he set up a firing squad to kill them.... I slammed my fist onto his table, insisting that he take the lives of his own countrymen.'
Graham reflects on that moment with shame, saying he was acting not as a patriot or professional but 'as a very selfish and immature young man, trying to prove his manhood, thriving on the adrenaline of danger and violence, no matter what the cost to others....' (As it turned out, American air power drove the enemy back from Hué and order was restored, without, as far as Graham knows, his orders to kill the looters being carried out.)
He returned to America in September 1972 a shattered man, suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He found himself recoiling from the sound of helicopters, flinching at loud noises in the street. A chance invitation led him into an encounter group on a retreat run by the Creative Initiative Foundation in California.
Though none in the encounter group had lived nearly as adventurous a life as Graham, few of them seemed impressed with his 'John Wayne' aura. The group focused on the 'inner person', studying the masculine and feminine impulses in every heart, the 'animus' and the 'anima' in the human soul.
One day, a small circle of the men quizzed themselves on which individual in the immediate group they felt was the most 'feminine'- and came to a unanimous conclusion.
They all pointed to Graham. Graham?! The death-defying adventurer and climber of terrifying mountain walls?
He escaped for a walk under the eucalyptus trees, embarrassed and humiliated by what he first thought was an unfair accusation. Then he began to feel a huge weight lifting off his shoulders, a growing sense of enormous inner freedom. 'I began to fly down the paths,' he said. 'I sat down and cried for two hours. For 30 years, I had been suppressing the softer, more poetic, more spiritual side of myself, crippling my own life.'
This experience-and a later encounter with the Inner Peace Movement (IPM) that he describes as his 'spiritual awakening'-began his transformation from a warrior-adventurer-diplomat into a passionate apostle for world change.
He found himself not long after in Washington DC arranging for weapons sales and planning nuclear war under Henry Kissinger. Graham describes these years as a 'Jekyll and Hyde life, with both sides of me struggling for control'. His experience in California had given him a 'psychological makeover' and the encounter with IPM had provided 'moral and ethical underpinnings and a sense of God-led direction'. 'But in Washington,' he says, 'I got swept up in the power and excitement of toplevel policy-making.' He would plan nuclear war during the week and give spiritual lectures at the weekend.
Graham next worked as a foreign policy advisor to Senator John Glenn (America's first astronaut to orbit Earth), where he drafted legislation to limit arms sales to the Third World. 'It was the first time I'd worked for peaceinstead of war, and discovered that I could make a positive difference tothe world,' he says.
He carried that conviction to New York, where he worked as a deputy for Third World Affairs to the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young.
During this period, Graham often went off on his own-at the risk of being fired-finding ways to actually 'make a difference' in South Asia, to address human rights in Latin America and to help end apartheid in South Africa. 'I could do this because the liberal Carter was President and because my bosses gave me immense latitude,' he says. 'But most of all I could do it because I'd discovered I had a mission in life, and that mission was to serve, to heal.'
He knew his unique circumstances at the UN under Carter and Young could not go on forever, and by 1980 was considering a change of direction. 'I had enough courage then to quit the Foreign Service, but not to go further,' he says. 'I lost my nerve-mostly over money.'
In this state of mind, he accepted a job lecturing on a cruise ship-which caught fire and sank in the freezing waters of the Gulf of Alaska. During a typhoon-lashed night at sea in a frigid life-boat, Graham says God gave him a clear choice: 'I could either keep running away from the life of purpose I now knew was mine-in which case, God said, I might as well die out there. Or I could move forward into a life of service and healing. God made the choice that clear. Seasick, near death from cold, I made the choice to serve, and the instant I did so, a Coast Guard cutter came crashing through this wild storm. I never looked back after that.' His new path led him tothe Giraffe Heroes Project.
Now at age 62, Graham urges everyone he meets, 'Don't die before you've made a difference.' He believes that the experience of personal spiritual change is essential and fundamental. But, he says, 'I can't stop there. I need to tackle the problems I care about directly-to organize, write petitions, help make and unmake laws, bring enemies together to resolve conflicts, carry healing to the wounded and hope to the despairing.'
Now change beckons again, and Graham is easing back on his day-to-day involvement with the Giraffe Heroes Project to devote more time to public speaking, leading seminars and writing books and articles. Recently, for example, he received a rousing standing ovation from the cadets of the US Air Force Academy after a speech on moral leadership. (Graham reports, with a grin, that the first question from the floor was 'When are you going to run for President?')
He has addressed or coached audiences ranging from the US Navy to the Sierra Club, from the Khmer Institute for Democracy in Cambodia to Initiatives of Change conferences in Caux, Switzerland. His latest book, Stick Your Neck Out-a street-smart guide to creating change in your community and beyond (Berrett-Koehler) was published in May.
Many would say John Graham has done more than most-maybe more than enough-to change the world. Graham respectfully disagrees. He wants to spend every ounce of energy, every day of his life, initiating change around him and in the world. He hopes it will be said of him someday, 'Nothing was left unspent.' To John Graham, that is what it means to be an initiator of change.
The giraffe symbol came to me in a dream (Jungian based work here) in 2002. I have been a business professional for years, now doing leadership consulting and executive development, but followed a spiritual awakening that began well over 20 years ago, and led me to do figurative clay work. I have primarily done the human figure but began my first giraffe after the giraffe dream in 2002. I now cannot stop making giraffes (dalefergusonart.com). They symbolize to me all that your organization states, and are the perfect symbol for great leadership as it definitely takes sticking your neck out... and... recognizing the need to bridge the gap (long neck) between the head and the heart. I took two years of Jungian based dream work on top of much other spiritual based work for many years.
Dale Ferguson, 05 May 2007
I have also had neck tumors (non-malignant) that have recurred, and after one surgery an inner Soul voice said 'I am leaving the corporte work...best you come with me...' For a number or years some of the clients I did leadership consulting with literally gave me a pain in the left side of my neck... and the the clay work feels healing to the tumors in making the long giraffe necks.
The bottom line...I would love to find a way to collaborate with your organization...either with my clay work perhaps making a clay giraffe award to donate to recipients...or supporting the work in the consulting I do...
I have a terrific person I would like to nominate for the Giraffe award. Michael Meade in Seattle WA, who has done tireless work with gangs, boys, men in prison, and drumming and storytelling for spiritual healing. His is a non-profit organization based out of Seattle. I have the contact information.
I would like to order a large t-shirt and several of the stick your neck out buttons but had difficulty with the website purchasing method. I couldn't get both products to register on the order.
Mostly, I want to thank you for listening to the guidance on the burning boat. We all have our storing especially at our age. I hope you will look at my two websites, and that we could talk about some synergies or donations on my part of my claywork.
It is driven by an inner voice and it took me to your web site. I have written a children's book (not ready for publishing) with a giraffe as the main character, helping children with eating disorders. It is about the Blue Giraffe and the Talking tummy. More to tell.