I’m Proud of Who I Am
"My vow to help others become happy is now the source of my validation."
Living Buddhism: Thank you for sharing your experience with us. What was your upbringing like?
Micah Conrad: I grew up the youngest of five children in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Germantown. My father showered love and attention on my sisters, but he seemed to barely acknowledge my brother and me. By high school, I started actively seeking his validation.
My father was a veteran, so at 17, I decided to join the U.S. Air Force, thinking we could bond over our military experiences. I told everyone that I had enlisted to receive college scholarships, but in reality it was to gain my father’s approval. I was literally willing to die for it.
I eventually became a telecommunications specialist and was deployed four times to conflicts, where I saw the ugly reality of war. A scar above my right eyelid is a reminder of the time I was nearly decapitated. The marks on my left shoulder and back are from taking bullets. I am fortunate to have survived, which can’t be said of a number of the men in my unit.
There are no winners in war. When did you return home?
Micah: After my last deployment in 2008, I returned home to Philadelphia. I had trouble, however, getting adjusted to civilian life. Every sound, whether it was a horn honking or someone raising their voice, took me right back to the battlefield. I had witnessed five of my comrades killed in battle and sought encouragement from my father, but his only response was for me to figure things out on my own. I was deeply discouraged and decided to cut him out of my life.
During this challenging time, I met a girl named Janine, and we soon began dating. In 2011, Janine and I married. We were enjoying our new life together when, on October 23, 2013, Janine went into cardiac arrest. The paramedics rushed her to the hospital and, for three days, she was in a coma. I was scared, but assumed that she would wake up, and we would live happily ever after. She was just 24, after all.
What happened next?
Micah: On Friday, October 25, my wife was diagnosed with HIV, which was in an advanced stage. I was told that I also needed to be tested. By this time, we had been together for five years, so it was a foregone conclusion that I also had contracted the illness.
After being tested, the administrator came out and apologized for taking so long. They were trying to figure out why I had no traces of the virus in my system (which is true to this day). Just one week later, on Sunday, November 3, 2013, Janine passed away.
For the next three years, I felt as if my heart had stopped beating. Janine was my best friend, and I had to learn to live without her. Waking up each day was my biggest challenge. I felt hopeless and depressed—like nothing mattered. I missed her smile, the one that I had woken up to every day.
I’m so sorry for your loss. How were you able to move forward?
Micah: In May 2016, I connected with a childhood friend and found out that she is Buddhist. She gave me the book An Introduction to Buddhism. From the first page, I knew everything I was reading applied to my life—things like unshakable happiness, actual proof and the importance of “faith, practice and study.” I was deeply moved by the principle that everyone had the right to become happy. I felt empowered that I could transform my life and take my destiny into my own hands.
On October 2, 2016, I received the Gohonzon. I immediately created a list of things I wanted to change in my life. One of them was to have a relationship with my father. In March 2017, my cousin came to Philadelphia and stayed at my father’s home for the week. During that week, I reconnected and bonded with my father. Phone conversations that were once three months apart became every other day. My hope returned, and with it, the courage to face my past and build a genuine bond with my father.
I was struck by these words from SGI President Ikeda: “When we face a tough situation, that’s the time we need to summon our courage. The more difficult the challenge, the more bravely we must tackle it. This is the essence of the Soka Gakkai spirit. When we personally go to the most challenging places, a way forward will open” (January 2018 Living Buddhism, p. 66).
Buddhism became my way forward. This is why I carry a smile on my face every day. I learned how to win over my suffering and to continue winning. I wake up every morning, chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo powerfully, study Sensei’s guidance and Nichiren Daishonin’s writings, and do my best to make an impact in my life and the lives of others. My vow to help others become happy is now the source of my validation.
What a wonderful example of the spirit to never be defeated! In what way do you try to encourage others?
Micah: On November 1, 2017, I was appointed the young men’s leader of Schuylkill North Chapter. Together, the young men in my chapter have united to wage a campaign of home visits to other young men and introduce our friends to the SGI. One day in particular, we had a united campaign to meet with as many youth guests as possible. Our last visit of the night was to a guest who had been originally introduced to the SGI by a young man who was no longer attending activities. He confirmed to meet with us but suddenly stopped responding. We were determined to break through, thinking, Somehow, we need to get through to him! Based on determination and our never-give-up spirit, we met with him, and he decided to join the SGI!
Also, since he received the Gohonzon, his sponsor reignited his own faith. This new member also agreed to be a unit leader and to join us in visiting and encouraging other young men. In this way, the core of young men in the chapter is steadily expanding.
Amazing! What have you learned from your experiences supporting other young men in faith?
Micah: The night when we were trying to see this young man, I kept asking myself, How far am I willing to go to support this one person? Through this experience, I finally understood what it means to never give up on someone. I learned that to make the impossible possible, I needed to dig deep and press forward until I achieved my goal!
How would you describe your transformation through practicing Buddhism?
Micah: Before I started practicing, I was private and closed off. Practicing Buddhism has taught me to open myself up to other people in order to encourage them. Instead of bottling up my pain and suffering, I’ve learned to use my past experiences to encourage other people and give them hope. I’ve learned that I can turn my despair into a determination to help others become happy.
I have also taken action to pursue many of my passions. Currently, I own two trucking companies and actively invest in real estate. My real passion since childhood, however, has been science and agriculture. I recently invested in several greenhouses that grow plants and crops with desalinated water. Now, I can look in the mirror and say that I’m proud of who I am.
Congratulations! What is your determination toward the 50,000 Lions of Justice Festival?
Micah: I am determined that our chapter will introduce 25 new youth members toward September. Also, my chapter will bring 60 youth to the festival. So far this year, I have been able to help two friends receive the Gohonzon. To the fellow youth reading this, I want to say: Let’s hold true to our great vow! Through determination and unity, I promise to report a great victory to Sensei.