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Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Hidden Dangers

One day as my father sped along the local expressway, I noticed from my position in the back seat that my door was slightly ajar. At ten years old, I did what any kid would do; I grabbed the handle and tried to give the door a quick open and close. Unfortunately, the very second the latch released, the door violently flew open and stretched me out like Gumby—as I perilously extended between the seat and door.

Hanging suspended over the speeding expressway, I wondered what would come first—would I sag to the point where my face would be sanded away or would my dad come to a stop before I removed my features? (He stopped.) Then it hit me, this is why my brother spoke of our car’s precarious portals as “suicide doors.” Our car sported doors that actually opened backward—catching the wind, pulling you out, and making it nearly impossible to re-close the door as you hung there, suspended over a concrete conveyer belt.

As horrible as it is to contemplate the fact that college-educated engineers purposely designed doors that flew open in the wind, it should come as little surprise to any of us. After all, just about every single part found in a car of that era was dangerous. Even features as simple as door pulls were veritable spears that stabbed you. If you came too rapidly to a stop, the dashboard contained all kinds of pokey things that left ghastly impressions in your forehead, there were no seatbelts, and the windshield glass would break into large, horrible shards of death.

Cars weren’t the only source of danger kids faced in the 50s. Although I didn’t play in uranium tailings like my partner Al (I’ve heard he’s still able to read in the dark by the glow of his feet), being more of a city boy, my mom would drop me and my friends downtown where we’d find our own way to expose ourselves to carcinogens. For instance, we’d stop by the Buster Brown shoe store to play with the lovely toy provided by the Adrian X-ray Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We’d take turns holding our arms or legs in the space where you normally inserted your foot (to see how a prospective shoe might fit) while your friends gawked at moving pictures of your X-rayed skeleton. We actually tried to stick our heads in the machine to see what our skulls looked like.

Home wasn’t much safer during those days. For example, one Halloween my brother Bill brought home a bottle of “glow-in-the-dark” paint. According to the instructions, you were supposed to paint “Boo!” and other topical expressions on the front door, but when my brother accidentally spilled the radioactive material on his pinky finger he discovered that it turned it into a fluorescent, see-through appendage. Seizing the moment, Bill quickly painted both hands with the deadly concoction and ran around the neighborhood scaring kids with his living skeletal hands.

Later that week, the two of us broke open two thermometers and played with the mysterious, smooth, and slippery mercury until it was finally gone. Still later, we produced a bubbling concoction with our chemistry set that smelled so awful that when we rushed the boiling test tube to the window, the noxious fumes literally paralyzed the flies that had been walking on the glass. To this day I suspect that had I not repeatedly sniffed the potion, calculus would have come much easier to me.

We did escape one deadly element by a whisker. A mere three years before my brother was born, the government outlawed the commercial use of radioactive thorium. Since thorium contained so much energy, it was thought to be good for you. Well-intended employees of several toothpaste and laxative companies added thorium to their product. That’s right; they were adding the same material that killed Marie Curie.

Sometimes the ease with which we gained access to dangerous materials put our entire community at risk. For instance, as a young boy I routinely visited the docks during the Blossom Time Festival when the fleet was in. There I found ways to sneak around the various naval vessels that were on display. One year, I simply lagged behind the boring submarine tour that followed a cordoned-off pathway and darted down a ladder to the restricted and nifty parts of the vessel where I then climbed around every space humanly possible—exiting the place covered in grease.

The next year, at the ripe old age of eleven, I pulled the same stunt on a gun ship. Only this time, I snuck into one of the gun turrets where I found a chair hooked up to an ocular device that gave me a close-up view of the hills overlooking Bellingham Bay. Wanting to see my own home, I gingerly moved a couple of levers that changed the view—accompanied by a strangely loud noise. After maneuvering the image for a minute or two, I eventually had a close-up view of my own home on Garden Street.

Then, just as I was about to move the sighting device to look in the window of Rita Smith (the girl who lived next door to us), I was yanked out of the seat. It turns out I wasn’t merely moving the gun sight when I jimmied those levers, I was moving the actual cannon—that’s what was making the loud noise. A second-class gunner’s mate assigned to the security detail spotted the cannon in motion, ran up to the turret, saw a kid aiming the gun at the hillside, and yanked me out of harm’s way. Now, it’s not as if I could have fired the gun, but you have to admit, there’s something unsettling about the whole matter. (Yes, I know I was very wrong in doing what I did—but for crying out loud, how was I ever allowed to do it?)

The good news is, these are all examples from the 50s and we’ve made vast improvements in keeping heavy metals, dangerous chemicals, radioactive materials, X-ray machines, and howitzers out of the reach of children. We can be proud of that. But even in today’s modern times, there’s an invisible force, just as deadly, that can still be found all around us. I’d like to point it out so we can guard against its lethal effects.

I noticed the invisible, yet frighteningly dangerous, force in light of recent political and economic turmoil. As I listened to pundits and talk-show hosts discuss necessary changes, what was happening in our country, and why it was either positively brilliant or insanely stupid, I realized that just as the Curies unknowingly exposed themselves to the invisible dangers of radiation, we’re continually being exposed to the killing effects of assuming our own omniscience.

Here’s how this ugly assumption works. People routinely talk about something as complicated as revamping the country’s massive healthcare system as if their view is remarkably simple, completely obvious, and held by all smart people. Of course, their opponents’ view is just plain stupid. So stupid in fact, that you can’t talk about it without rolling your eyes. This, of course, comes from people at both ends of the continuum.

Now, don’t get me wrong, unlike deadly radiation, you can hear and see the actual argument people make, but the underlying assumption that often goes unseen and scares me the most is the one that smacks of “I’m smart and right and you’re stupid and wrong.” Such pernicious and invisible views provide such a killing blow to civil discourse that they need to be spotted, labeled, and put under locked guard. When people enter a discussion with the notion that it’s their job to patiently wait while others blather on with their insane notions, and then set their opponents straight in one epiphanous moment of insight and verbal magic, there is no hope for civil discourse and the subsequent solution to massive national problems.

So here’s what I’ve been doing to deal with the assumption of omniscience. After listening to a talk-show host who generally reflects my political views attack a new federal policy—not simply because it was risky or possibly wrong—but because (he clearly thought) it was the disastrous product of an insane and ignorant group of opponents, I took action. I stopped listening. I stopped listening to someone who often adheres to many of my views because he positively radiated hate and loathing. He smugly sat there and talked about the opposing view as it was designed by either Satan or an idiot or both. I then e-mailed the highly-popular host and told him why I, a person of similar beliefs, would no longer patronize his program. His assumption that he was omniscient, and that his opponents were omni-stupid, was more than I could bear.

At the more local level, I fight the hidden threat of omniscience at every turn. I do my best to chat with people of opposing views by seeking to understand why they’ve come to their conclusion, tentatively sharing my view, and then looking for any truth—no matter its source. I do this because I want my family, company, and country to succeed. I want the best views to be rationally presented, honestly discussed, and applied to problems that can only be resolved when careful-thinking people present their best thoughts and jointly come up with solutions that often contain elements from both camps. I want people to come up with a third way. I also want people to talk in such a way that if one is wrong and the other is right, they’ll peacefully discover that fact as well.

And, of course, to make all this happen, I hope that people will avoid the deadly assumption of omniscience with the same care and rigor we now apply to avoiding dangerous cars, noxious chemicals, heavy metals, radiation, and the occasional run-in with a howitzer.

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22 thoughts on “Kerrying On: Hidden Dangers”

  1. Elise Wagner

    I love how eloquently that was put into this day.

  2. Charles Loewenberg

    Nothing to disagree with here, Kerry.

    My only comment (unfortunately) is … ‘good luck on that.’ Sometimes clear and logical responses / solutions can’t be seen or understood … until the time is right … an often deadly situation, as history has shown. Santayana was right … yet again.

    If there were easy, simple solutions (my specialty), I would have likely found them.😇

    Kerry on!

  3. Julia Graves

    How thoughtful and true

  4. Aurie Clifford

    Thank you for presenting an actual action that will be impactful with so much chaos all around. Thank you.

  5. Neena Bentley

    Please, please, please RUN FOR PRESIDENT!!!!! If that’s not possible for you, we should come up with a way to REQUIRE every politician (better still, every person using social media) to take Crucial Learning courses.

  6. Kay Hougan-Jones

    I agree wholeheartedly. I love the story of the gunship and sighting in on Garden Street. My grandmother lived on Garden Street at the time and I was most likely playing in her yard as the grandkids were sent into town during Blossom time! I am grateful to the gunner 2nd mate for saving me from an early demise! :O)

  7. Laura Larsen

    This is exactly how I’ve felt for years. Thank you for putting words to it. I will be sharing.

  8. Phil Kac

    “I would no longer patronize his program” – This is cancel culture – another form of ideological purity spiral. Should we respond to a purity spiral with a purity spiral of our own? Tempting. Or must we keep listening and engaging, even to the individuals who offend us? An ideological purity spiral is a phenomenon where a group or community, often based on political or social beliefs, becomes increasingly extreme in their adherence to specific ideological or moral standards. In this type of spiral, members of the group constantly police each other for any perceived deviations from the group’s core beliefs, resulting in a narrowing of acceptable viewpoints. This can lead to a situation where the group becomes increasingly dogmatic, intolerant of dissent, and at risk of self-destruction. When a person feels the need to signal their allegiance to a particular ideological or moral stance, they may unintentionally encourage others around them to do the same. Over time, this can create a dynamic where the entire group is constantly trying to signal their devotion to the cause in increasingly extreme ways, ultimately resulting in a form of ideological purity that excludes anyone who does not conform to the group’s standards. This form of exclusion is also known as “Cancel Culture”.

    1. Hedy B-W

      I appreciate this observation! I generally don’t watch even those I have agreed with policy-wise when they do so with disrespect, sneering, anger and hate, but never thought to contact them. This has certainly reduced my media options! I agree that cancelling is just another version of what disturbed me, but will consider responding to programs with appreciation of the positive and requests for a more respectful discussion of opposing viewpoints.

    2. Renee

      In another era, the “cancel culture” was called boycotting. In Mr. Kerry’s case, he made the decision for himself, as we all should, not to patronize the program. I don’t believe he said he advocated that others should boycott the program.

  9. Scott Jackson

    Great essay! My two favorite questions to ask when either myself or others have an emotionally strong opinion on a particular topic is to ask:
    (1) How does one actually know a fact claim is either true, partially true or false?
    (2) How does one actually know a value claim is either good, foolish or evil?
    These questions help reduce emotions and increase cognitions. Think more, feel less!

  10. Sandie Taylor

    I recently immigrated to the USA and have been so disappointed in the arrogance surrounding “freedom of speech” that is expressed in the media and in politics. What has happened to common decency of disagreeing agreeably? I appreciate your article. Thank you.

  11. Rena P Laliberte

    HA ! this is great and leaves me with great memories of playing with mercury from all the thermometers I broke as a child… no effect on me at all- at least I don’t think SO!!!! Well, written, thank you!

  12. Steve Otto

    WOW what a childhood! Glad you survived. Thanks for another example of uncommon, common sense

  13. Bret

    R.I.P. Kerry! I love all your stories and shared wisdom. You are dearly missed.

    1. Robin Konop

      I agree. A wonderful person and truly missed.

  14. Lou Anne Mills

    Refreshing! I get very tired of the negative atmosphere.

  15. Gary Kotler

    Love your Point.
    I ask “Would I say it in front of them”

  16. Jacqueline

    I love the backstory here about growing up in the 50’s. Seems like a dangerous time. I thought growing up in the 70s was bad. I absolutely agree with you on the omniscience feeling. Recently in Australia, we had a referendum which was divisive and painful for the people it affected. Every time Australia wants to enable a disadvantaged group in it’s constitution, it asks the people. The whole process is awful and painful. And when the country says ‘no’ to whatever group is asking for a particular right, there’s a lot of heartbreak for those affected, and for those who wanted to do the ‘right’ thing. The idea of omniscience is definitely part of the discourse with everyone wanting to be right. Everyone seeing the other side as completely stupid and wrong.
    Ultimately, the whole process creates division instead of conversation. The topic becomes heated and emotional. Some people walk away and do a donkey vote to express their dissatisfaction at the whole process.
    I’ve always tried to have friends who don’t always reflect my point of view. It was really hard to listen to people on this last one. I wish I’d seen this article earlier but these gifts from the universe come when you’re ready to receive it.
    Thank you for such a warm and engaging article. I really enjoyed it and walked away with greater insights about myself.

  17. Laura

    Excellent and much needed action!!

  18. Geoffrey R Holt

    Thank you Kerry for sharing these amazing insights and for your what I call prophetic call to avoiding the horrible social discourse that is happening 14 years later. Sadly, like the prophets of Israel experienced, it is sad that so many North Americans have not heeded your warnings and sage advice, and have gone in the complete other direction. Thank you for speaking the truth as to what genuine democratic discourse is all about.

  19. Kent Gale

    The overarching simplicity ties to one of Covey’s great comments….seek first to understand and then seek to be understood. Yes, labelling others and name calling is counter productive and totally wrong. I am applying your solution. I will let those who are sharing their thoughts and damaging the effort by name calling, know how it is impacting me.

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