Ken’s Challenge for the Holidays — Love Thy Neighbor

Life confuses me sometimes. As a young boy growing up in rural Whatcom County, I was taught right from wrong, to hold myself accountable, to work hard, and to judge others and myself not necessarily by our achievements, but rather by whether we push ourselves to extract the most from our genetic gifts. Those who worked hard to be the best version of themselves that they could be, even if they were not especially gifted, were to be admired and respected. Those who did not, were not.

These teachings became the moral and ethical backbone of my life — well before I was exposed to big city life, racism, bigotry, religious schisms, and today’s toxic political environment. I was fortunate, I suppose. I believed what I was told, in part because my value system was intact before it was tested in earnest by the chaos of the world. This is what makes Whatcom County such a special place to raise children even today. It is a bubble of sorts.

Today, the bubble in Whatcom County is closer to reflecting a true cross-section of life. By contrast, when I grew up in the 1960s and 70s, there were no blacks, or Asians, or other racial minorities in my schools except for handful of Lummis, many of whom were my friends. I did not even know that synagogues, mosques, or the Quran existed. And homosexuality, it was nameless and invisible. In an odd way, this lack of diversity was a blessing — I didn’t know to discriminate. I had no negative experiences that darkened my heart. I was taught to love all human beings, to give everyone their dignity, and I did. I was surrounded as a child and teenager by a goodness that I only later learned was not universal.

The 60s and 70s were a different time, of course. With no internet and no cell phones, my world was small, and in retrospect, naive. But I believed what I believed, and I never questioned my childhood value system. When I left Whatcom County after high school to test myself, I left home wrapped in the protective cloak of morals and ethics taught to me by this community and my parents — and I never looked back. I drew upon these lessons often; they were my protective armor against conflicting forces that I never imagined as a youth.

And while I understand the challenges and harshness of life better now, I still believe in the power of goodness as a shield against the poisons in life. I don’t understand, and have never understood, prejudice, discrimination, and hate. I don’t understand the recent attack on the Jewish temple in Pittsburgh and the hatred of Jews by some. I never understood racism, misogyny, and any form of religious persecution, much of which is driven by fear of the unknown, or a misguided need to feel superior, or a perceived existential threat. Whatever the explanation, this wonderful community taught me to fight these primal fears, to be better than the worst of my emotions, and to love my neighbors as extended family — black, white, brown, orange or green, gay, lesbian, transgender, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, atheist or agnostic, rich or poor.

As Benjamin Franklin famously said, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” In all of my travels throughout the world on business, I was always struck by the universality of each culture’s common bonds. At the most base of levels, we are all the same — we worry about our children, we worry about our health and safety and the health and safety of our loved ones, we worry about finances, and we worry about whether our lives have mattered. These worries bind us all together. If we focus on the sameness, our differences become so much less consequential.

For the holidays, let’s all practice what every generation of parents has preached to generations of kids. Be ambassadors for kindness, for goodness sake. If you are out shopping and see someone, especially someone who may be different than you, don’t just pass silently by, or wait for the other person to speak or interact. Be proactive. Engage them, spontaneously, and watch their faces brighten with surprise. Step into another’s shoes and think, “What could I do to make this person feel appreciated and worthy?” and then do it. The response is likely to warm your heart.

We each have a responsibility to be part of the solution. There is nothing that ails our world that can’t be improved one person at a time by random acts of kindness.

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"And while I understand the challenges and harshness of life better now, I still believe in the power of goodness as a shield against the poisons in life."