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BE the Change

Updated: Nov 1, 2022

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” Mahatma Ghandi

Whether we realize it or not we are shaped and molded and impacted by the people we have spent time with during our lives. For me there was a stark contrast growing up with a father who was a pessimist and a mother who was an optimist. I sometimes wondered how they ended up together or what kept them together!

My father was an adult child of an alcoholic, and then rejected as a middle child and not the first-born son or the daughter who were both more important to his parents. I heard stories growing up of the many ways my father was mistreated or saw his brother and sister loved more by his parents than he was. I believe his worldview dimmed even further as an adult after working many years as a police officer in the City of Philadelphia. From that experience and perspective, my father taught me that people are dangerous and not to be trusted, and we lived in a house with many locks on the doors and windows.

My mother was one of six children, the baby of her family, and apparently an unwanted child after four sons and a daughter had already been born. Fortunately for her though, despite a lack of attention and time with her mother and father, she was surrounded by loving and kind brothers and an older sister who taught her to find joy in life, to sing songs for fun, and to see the best in other people. My mother always had a smile to greet me or anyone else she encountered. I was fortunate therefore to spend more time with my mother and her family as I was growing up than I did with my father and his family.

I remember a particularly vivid memory from the summer when I was ten years-old when my mother and I were invited for a weekend at the seashore with my Aunt Elsie (Mom’s sister) and Uncle Ernie. The trip was generally memorable because it struck me how positive and enjoyable my Uncle Ernie was compared to how my father would have been on a trip like that. I had never spent time around another father figure besides my Dad and my Uncle Ernie was so much different from my father in every way.

The first morning there my Uncle Ernie greeted me with a big smile and said: “What a BEAUTIFUL day this is going to be!” Mornings with my father always had a rule that we couldn’t talk to my Dad early in the mornings because my Mom said: “It’s best not to bother him before he’s had his coffee.”

Anyway, that morning with my Aunt Elsie and Uncle Ernie, we took a nice bicycle ride on the boardwalk in the morning sun and then they suggested we stop to eat breakfast. We parked our bikes against the boardwalk railing and my Uncle Ernie started to cross the boardwalk to a small breakfast restaurant he was treating us to. I called to him to say: “Uncle Ernie you forgot to lock your bike!” He turned around and looked puzzled and then asked me: “Why would I lock my bike?” and I said: “Because if you don’t, someone will steal it of course.” I could tell he thought on that for a moment before answering me and saying: “Well if someone is willing to steal my bike, then they need it more than I do.”

We ate breakfast and I remember thinking all during breakfast about what my Uncle Ernie had said. Partly I just wanted breakfast to be over so I could see his face when he walked out and found his bike missing. You can imagine my shock then when we emerged from the restaurant after breakfast and discovered my Uncle’s bike still parked where he left it. What was particularly vivid about that moment in my life was realizing my Uncle Ernie was so joyful and kind that he truly meant it when he said someone else might need his bike more than he did. I remember comparing that moment to how my father had always taught me to lock my bike in three places on both wheels and the frame as he explained all the ways bike thieves might steal my bike.

I thought about that moment with my Uncle Ernie and his bike many times in the years that followed. That moment really impacted me and years later I came to realize that it was the difference between love and fear. I arrived at that conclusion after realizing my father and uncle had both grown up in the same poor neighborhood in Philadelphia around the same people yet my father saw the worst in people while my uncle saw the best or at least the potential for their best.

So as I think about the Ghandi quote I shared above, it makes me realize my Uncle Ernie lived life the way he hoped the world could be. It was not a surprise to me that he eventually became a very successful negotiator and arbitrator between unions and big business in Philadelphia. He could always see the best in people and help them see the positive side of things. How he lived his life inspired me to be that same kind of person. I’m confident it influenced me along my journey in later becoming a social worker.

I hope this story brings a smile to your face today as you start a new week. I hope you can see the best in someone this week and find an opportunity to share a smile, or a laugh, or to spread some joy in some way. Find hope when reading a news story, think of the opportunity you can find in a problem, and be thankful for the changes you’re making in yourself that may impact someone without you even knowing it – like my Uncle Ernie never realized just how much he impacted me.

Have a great week!

Ernest W. Kennedy


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