Kenneth L. Hardin: Priorities change on personal growth path

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 8, 2021

By Kenneth L. Hardin

I didn’t realize how long of a journey I’ve been on with personal growth until I looked back at my life over the last 45 years and noted distinctive periods of change.

I thought of Muhammad Ali’s quote, “The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.” I can definitely say my world view and outlook on life has changed significantly over time.

I don’t recognize the guy I was at 18 years old. When I look at pictures, I don’t remember him. As a teenager, I was fun-loving, carefree, but ignorant of so many things that would later impact and shape me. I was clueless as to who I was and worked hard to maintain that level of unawareness. I wanted to like everyone without realizing there would be people who hated me simply because of the uniform I was issued on my born day. After a brief college visit after high school, that guy continued to exist throughout a flourishing military career. The only color recognized back in the ’80s was Air Force blue, and I thrived with that. The 56-year-old me has a wall full of awards, letters and commendations from high-ranking officials praising that younger me. At that age, I was clueless as to how the complexities and indignities of life associated with the skin I was in would affect and impact me.

When I returned home after honorably serving my country, things felt different than when I left as a teenager. I saw a different side of my hometown and the people in it. Gone was the level of love from society I experienced in the protective bubble of my parent’s home. I was ill-equipped to handle this new awareness and took extreme measures to find where I fit in.

I was on the receiving end of so much hate and vitriol from people and, sadly, I didn’t know how to handle it. Initially, I felt it was my responsibility to make white people feel comfortable with me. I tried to carry myself a certain way in both speech and behavior, but that didn’t appear to stop the hate. I did what most people do when they’re put into a situation when they see how the world truly operates and how everything turns on skin color: you choose your home team. Yes, I became the epitome of the angry Black man. Looking back at my writings in the early ’90s, I see the anger and passion in my words. Today, I see maturity and growth. Nearing the end of that decade, I was so exhausted and disillusioned mentally and emotionally.

After entering the professional realm, hate didn’t cease; it just got sophisticated. When I transitioned into the white collar world, I falsely believed I would be treated better, but the only difference is they do it with grace, a smile, a nice office and a welcome basket.

As I started what would become a 20-plus year career working in hospital leadership around the country, I began to intellectualize my response to the hate bombs thrown at me. I sought reasoning and understanding more than physical and verbal retaliation. But I always let the suits know I still had a little bit of hood in me, and that 30-something me never forgot or got too comfortable.

In the early to mid-2000s, I learned the game and how to play it masterfully. I saw a duality had to exist if you wanted to survive. By my 40s, I had climbed the corporate ladder, but I didn’t like the view from up there. My tolerance level for the game was gone, and I was spending more time looking for a quiet exit.

I left the game for good in 2015, and I haven’t missed it. I could tell I wasn’t the man I once was because after securing a seat on the City Council, I endured a level of hate that would’ve crumpled a lesser man. The anonymous, threatening phone calls, hate-filled personal emails, awkward in-person encounters, strange cars parked outside of my house, people telling me I don’t know my place and the disrespect from other City Council members never motivated me to respond angrily.

The biggest change occurred three years ago and altered my outlook forever. From years of stress and not making my health a priority, my body gave out. My blood pressure and blood sugar levels were in competition to see who could go the highest. The 56-year-old me looks at life through a different lens today. Anything or anyone that interrupts my peace are excised from my life. I no longer try to understand anyone’s warped views on race.

I can tell the champ I haven’t wasted one day of my life.

Kenneth L. Hardin is a writer living in Salisbury, a former member of the Salisbury City Council and is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists.