Thoughts by Richard Bleil
Steel is primarily iron, with about 2% or less carbon, and maybe some additives such as chromium (for stainless steel) or nickel. The carbon content hardens the steel giving it incredible tensile strength, while the malleability of the iron allows it to be forged into various shapes such as swords.
Blacksmiths have been making high quality swords in a brutal and intense process of fire, water and beating. Too little carbon and the iron will be too malleable to hold its shape, but too much and it becomes fragile. The balance is key. In the process, the metal is literally “folded” as many as twenty times, wherein the steel is heated to near melting, and pounded in half, sometimes lengthwise and sometimes tip to hilt. After each folding the steel is pounded back out into a blade, the purpose of the folding being that it helps remove impurities and creates a “grain” to the steel to make it stronger.
Annealing is the step wherein the steel is repeatedly heated to near melting, pounded into the desired shape and quenched in water in a process called annealing. This heating and rapid cooling creates microscopic crystalline structures in the steel that makes it strong, but brittle. This is where the tensile strength grows but can still be shattered. Tempering, then, is where the steel is repeatedly heated, further beaten into shape and allowed to cool. This helps the microscopic crystals to form bonds and gives the steel its flexibility while maintaining the strength of the quenching. Polishing and sharpening then is the literal grinding down of the surface and edges of the blade.
It seems that forging the character of a person can draw parallels to this process. What we are made of is a combination of experiences. I see the good things in our lives as the iron, forming the basis of our character, giving us the malleability to be flexible, while the carbon is the bitterness of our lives. We need both to be strong and flexible. It is not uncommon to see people who have had everything given to them who are inflexible, unyielding and lacking in character. They will stand as pillars holding a building, bold and certain of their place but of limited utility. Too much bitterness, and like a sword with too much carbon content, and we crumble too easily.
It seems as though the bitterness finds its way naturally to us, whereas we need to seek out the good. In the depths of darkness, even the Angler fish offers the only bright spot in the area. If you get too close, the Angler will consume you, but there is good to be found in appreciating the glimmer from an appropriate distance.
But impurities that can make us weak can be worked out with folding. By continually looking inwards to see who we are, and more importantly, who we want to be, we can do the hard and often painful work to get the impurities that would otherwise make us bitter and brittle out. The work is challenging and uncomfortable, and must be done many times before we can become the quality blade we have the potential to be.
We are put through our trials time and time again, tested and beaten, followed by the quenching of loved ones and happiness. A friend of mine asked when the trials will end, but the reality is that they never will. We must continually prove ourselves in new furnaces where we will be pushed to the limit and beaten down time and time again. But each time, we get stronger, and harder, and higher quality if we choose to quench ourselves in the cool water of recognizing our accomplishments with each new fire.
As we learn of ourselves in these new fires, we become better tempered and higher quality still as we see the various aspects of our personality, understand them and ourselves better and allow them to work together. We see how the strength of the microcrystals formed in the annealing can still be flexible in the light of success. We can make the decision then to allow our experiences to grind us to the point of being highly polished, a cutting blade standing up for the principles we hold most dear, protecting our beliefs. We begin to recognize the process others are going through, and see the step they are on as they, too, are being honed into their final states.
Going through such challenging ordeals gives us incredible flexibility and compassion for those who are struggling. Indeed, some people don’t make it. They have been through too much and can’t seem to get those impurities out. They crumble in the process and cannot hold up but knowing what it takes to survive allows us to reach out to them with our hearts and our souls. Your trials, your difficulties, your successes can be honed to make you what it is you wish to be, as strong and flexible as you aspire to be if you are willing to do the hard and painful work, but we, all of us, are forged in the same fires.