"The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion." - Paulo Coelho
On December 30th,
I had a retirement party. I’m only 44 and, yes, I had a retirement party.
A few months ago, when I mentioned that I would be selling my business and retiring, the response I got was overwhelmingly positive. People were excited and happy for me, full of “What’s next?” and “Then what?” questions. I appreciated that very much. Yes, there were a handful of people who gawked and made silly comments like “Retire!? You’re way too young to retire!?” because to them retirement meant a finish—an end point, a put-your-feet-up-and-eat-bon-bons mentality. But for me, it’s simply a transition—putting aside the shopkeeper, guest-facing, retail-heavy life that has taken so much of my time and focus for decades and putting the experience, lessons, and inspiration I’ve gained there and elsewhere to use through more mentorship, consulting, and writing. And, yeah, maybe putting my feet up just a little bit.
It's been a couple of weeks since that retirement open house, and our good neighbors truly showed up for it! The quantity and quality of people who came to congratulate Clark and Codey Noel on buying the business and me on my retirement from shopkeeper life was incredibly touching. These weren't necessarily our high-dollar or high-volume clients, but rather the majority were people from the neighborhood—those with whom we've built relationships over the past 12-plus years and who have become ardent supporters and advocates of our business. They're the ones who watched the business grow from the beginning and did all they could to visit and patronize through the various challenges I and it faced—street closures, a cancer battle, a global pandemic, etc. They're the people who care. They're our friends. They're our team. They're our family. They are the reason we've been so successful.
I have a long list of thank-you notes to write for the sweet gifts, heartfelt cards, and stories shared about things that I didn’t even realize made an impression, yet are remembered years later. In a recent video chat with my mentor and friend, Opi, he mentioned that he had recently seen a reel one of my clients had posted talking about an experience she had years ago at my business that she’ll never forget. Opi was very touched by the video and reminded me that one little thing that may not be at all a big deal to one person may mean the world to someone else. As he often also reminds me, it’s all about perspective. I’m so grateful for that.
One of my main focuses moving forward will be on mentoring and coaching through AYM High Consultants, a group some colleagues and I launched last week. I'll also continue to write my Ask Uncle Marty™ column and grow my editing business (got two new clients this past week, so that's very exciting!) I have also thoroughly been enjoying sleeping in some days (I'll get on a regular morning routine again soon to prevent myself from falling into slobbery), though today I had three meetings before 11 a.m., so sleeping in isn't often an option. As I mentioned in my "The Next Chapter" post a while ago, I may be retired from shopkeeper life, but I certainly haven't retired from the hustle. And, recognizing the platforms and influence I've somehow been given through the network I've made over my tenure in my industry and communities, I understand both the responsibility and the opportunity I have with what I share. It seems lately that the world is so full of confusion, contention, and frustration and, while I can't change that on a large scale, I can maybe share a little bit about what's allowed me to keep my peace amidst it: turning off the contentious voices and instead focusing on the positive ones. Going forward in whatever sphere of influence I've garnered, I want to be sure that my voice is a positive one.
The mission statement I’ve created to be part of my updated bio is to "explore, encourage, empower, and envision a better world by both learning from others and sharing lessons that I've learned in my own experience." And that’s going to be my mission in spending time in semi-retirement listening, reading, visiting, experiencing, and digging into different, diverse sources to try to figure out this thing called life a little bit more. Yes, I’ll be doing plenty of hot-air sharing about things I really do know about in the MBC (mail and business center) industry and small business life, and also about keeping a business, large or small, on track with vision, professional and clear communication, concise marketing and branding, and panoptic team building, but what I really want to share are lessons I’ve learned and want to continue to learn about what I’m going to call “good-neighborliness.”
I say this as someone who doesn’t really know my neighbors at home (as opposed to at the office, where I spent the majority of the past 12-plus years and know most neighbors well). Yes, I
know some of my home neighbors' names, but I’m not the type to invite them
over for a drink and a game of Bunko. I’m more of a love-you-at-a-distance kind
of neighbor here, and on my little part of the street we all get along great! It
works. But I can guarantee you that all five or six homes that I can see out of
my front window are full of very different people—different backgrounds,
faiths, goals, family types, gender identities, ages, professions, politics, and perspectives
on how much lawn furniture is too much. And, I’ll repeat, we get along great!
We are good neighbors. We are cordial and wave to each other often, give each other space to do whatever we want
in our own yards, keep our
culverts and ditches clean so our junk doesn’t wash down to the next house, mow our lawns in
a somewhat timely fashion to keep the street's curb appeal and property values up, and so on. We respect each other. We, in a way, love each
other. We are kind to each other. We have each other's backs. We give each other space.
I think that good-neighborliness is what’s lacking so much in our societies at the moment. Some people are way too involved in other people's business, many trying to push their own morals on others. I won’t get too political here, sometimes it feels like compromise, freedom, and basic respect have been so often forgotten. Many people expect contention and are ready for a fight at any moment when someone brings up a hot-button issue, especially in an election year when people feel so much is at stake. In the midst of that, it's important for us—for me—to remember that the negative voices often shout the loudest. And they're definitely the most obnoxious. So, in heeding my own advice, perhaps to not get so upset about politics I just need to turn down the volume on those loud, boisterous, despondent voices and turn up the volume on the quiet, positive, hopeful voices that actually make progress...and peace.
I've been part of the same faith community my whole life—a non-denominational, home-based fellowship without an official charter or doctrine other than the teachings of Jesus. In principle, we just try to keep it simple and basic to the New Testament example without adding too much of the ceremony, structure, symbolism, and politics that formal religion often brings. Most of us believe it's not for us to control or set rules for each other, but rather it's up to individuals to work out their own convictions and paths through a personal relationship with God while sharing communion and encouragement together; the help I receive when we get together regularly in small groups, and occasionally in larger groups, to each share what's been on our hearts and minds is true treasure—a support group that I depend on. We have a ministry that's volunteer and itinerant, with pastors traveling generally in pairs from town to town and home to home to encourage people, help communities, make acquaintances, and hold public gatherings where they can share the gospel message of hope and love. The majority of those whom I consider my church friends are kind, gentle, happy, humble, and loving—true good neighbors. No one is perfect by any means, myself very much included, but most are trying their best to treat others right, share positivity, and learn and grow from each situation life throws at them.
While there's an awesome freedom in being part of a faith community without a formal doctrine, it can lead to some confusion because humanity wants to assume a doctrine. People want black and white, yes and no answers to some of the most basic questions we all face. What's right and what's wrong? Should we do this or should we do that? What about this topic or that? So, with us all being humans and subject to this part of our nature, we naturally seek guidance from one another. While that's good, guidance always needs to be taken with many grains of salt, especially when the guidance is from someone we’re trying our best to show respect to, because we could easily end up compromising our own standards, morals, cultural understanding, or cultural identity in an effort to try and not offend theirs. The bubble—whether due to isolation, generation, life experience, or just plain obtuseness—that the guidance giver may be operating out of must be considered, and that’s where the many grains of salt come in that the guidance receiver must not be afraid to sprinkle. To be good neighbors, we have to remember that guidance is not and should not be control, and that it's our right and our responsibility to call someone out when their perhaps-well-intended guidance crosses a line or is flat out inappropriate for the time and culture in which we exist. The moment we fear to do that, guidance can easily turn into control. And when we give someone control, that can lead to abuse. No human should ever control another human...in any circumstance. A controlling person the antithesis of a good neighbor.
My colleagues at AYM High Consultants and I form a coaching team made up of all different generations, which is intentional. Myself and one other coach are solid Gen Xers, and we have a boomer, another Gen Xer who's borderline millennial, and a Gen Zer on our team. Why? Because every generation sees the world quite differently. Business practices are different. World views are different. Access to information is different. Science and technology are different. Priorities are different. References are different. Pop culture is different. Culture, in general, is different. The environment is different in many senses. Laws are different. Politics are different. Styles are different. The way we were raised is different. Language is different, so how we talk is different. And what we talk about is different. Taboo topics are different. Manifestations of racism and sexism are different. Understandings of pronouns, gender, identity, and sexuality are different. Opportunities are different. Our education has been different. Our life experiences have been different. Our perspectives are different. And so our advice is therefore different. With all of us at AYM High working together, we embrace all of those differences and work as a team to find the best solutions for our clients. It's a wonderful combination and it works so very well in our consulting group as we help diverse business clients find their way.
However, if we think about guidance and advice giving as it occurs in faith-based setting, it's often not with all generations in mind, but rather it's usually coming down from a much older generation who see things very differently than the younger generation who is likely receiving the advice. And sometimes it's not with societal considerations in mind, where one area's morals and standards and norms and expectations may be quite different than another's. It doesn't mean the faith-based advice or guidance is necessarily wrong, but it does mean that it must be taken in context because cultures and the mores of those cultures change with each generation and location. If the advice is about how to have a right spirit of love, joy, peace, tolerance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, then it's awesome and timeless, but if it's about mechanical, cultural, and situational applications, then it must be sprinkled with those all-important grains of salt. This is very important to remember, especially for those of us who value scripture, and to consider when reading ancient writings that contain specific advice given to specific people in specific situations and specific societies. The concept of good-neighborliness is timeless, but neighborhoods and the principles of their inhabitants are entirely different across space and time.
In my faith community, we're currently experiencing some hard realities. In some ways, things have gotten off track and are in the process of being identified and corrected. Myself included, many people in the past have pandered to the most conservative in the group in order to not offend or make waves. Guidance has often been given, but not often stood up to when it was mechanical, cultural, or situational in nature and sometimes not appropriate due to a generational or societal disparity between the guidance giver and guidance receiver. Because of that, some hard-lined opinions got mixed into what is foundationally a spirit-led fellowship…and the customs that sprang from those opinions spread too far, hung around too long, garnered too much influence, and/or became mistaken for universal belief or dogma. And when there's a perception of a doctrine or dogma because of too-ingrained customs or ideologies, it gets easier for people to follow the form and not the spirit, to compartmentalize church life from personal life, to become sanctimonious, to judge others or look down upon those who don't look like or follow the ultra-conservative model, to let a spirit of control creep in where a spirit of good-neighborliness should be, and for wolves in sheep's clothing to enter or come out of hiding. This has happened some in my community, I'm afraid, and people have been deeply wounded, excluded, made to feel judged, and/or considerably offended.
That's very harsh-sounding, I know, but it’s reality. And I in no way want to have it come off that I feel it can't be rectified and that we can't heal, change, and move forward as better, safer, more welcoming, and less stuffy and stodgy neighbors. Because, after all, what I initially shared about my faith group is indeed how I know and believe it is...at its core, ideally, in a perfect world, and in many cases in the real world. And I'll repeat that the vast majority of those whom I consider my church friends are kind, gentle, happy, humble, and loving—true good neighbors. We're just in the midst of the hard, uncomfortable, incredibly important process of identifying, correcting, and reconciling right now. It often takes time, but love is always the answer. Love wins and love will always win. Love brings peace, and peace is the litmus test for love's presence. Love allows us to change and move forward as better, more loving, and more peaceable neighbors, filling one of our most important duties we have as neighbors: to keep our neighborhoods as safe, equitable, and peaceful as possible.
Every neighborhood, community, and group on the face of the planet that is made up of humans is therefore made up of entirely imperfect individual beings with varying degrees of egos, agendas, opinions, and struggles unique to each individual's set of circumstances. As a result, every community and group faces a number of human-related challenges, including obstinate mindsets, group-think, the frailty of humanity, and the paradox of influence, where people who have influence find themselves in a position of having their opinions given weight—entirely too much weight at times, to the point where it can create power, and before you know it some empowered to have a positive influence might find themselves abusing that influence for selfish gains, nefarious intentions, or to peddle their own viewpoints formed from their life experience without considering their neighbor and the completely different life experience that they may have. It can so easily get out of control, which can so easily lead to control, which, as I posited earlier, can so easily lead to all types of abuse. It's something anyone in any position of influence must be aware of, because, like it or not, human nature is going to come knocking and these challenges will have to be faced. And it's a huge wake-up call to me, realizing that I do have some influence in my communities and the responsibility I therefore have of making sure that influence remains a positive one—to be a good neighbor.
I was recently in one of the public meetings two of the ministers currently in my area hosted at a fire hall. One of our pastors shared a message about being careful not to judge. She mentioned how often Jesus insisted that his followers not judge others, but rather emphasized that love is what should drive them: love for God and love for their neighbors. We can never fully know someone's intentions and what's deeply hidden in their heart, so how can we judge? Instead, we're asked to have mercy. That same pastor shared in part that forgiveness isn't about the past or about saying something is or was okay, but it's about the future in order to move forward...and do so differently. She reminded us that we can't fix the world, but we can indeed fix ourselves. And friends, that's where we have to start. If we start to get overwhelmed, down, upset, and confused with all of the turmoil around us, just remember that the story isn't over yet. As Dev Patel's character, Sonny Kapoor, often said in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, "Everything will be okay in the end. If it's not okay, it's not the end."
A few weeks ago, I had a dear friend staying with me for a couple of nights. He too is a minister, and one for whom I have the utmost respect—truly exhibiting a spirit of good-neighborliness, love, and realism. Having a wonderful time together with very encouraging conversations, he and I got into two related hot-button topics on which we disagreed. I believe each of us could easily go on for hours, ardently arguing our points, getting heated, and getting flustered and angry because the other didn't see it the way we see it. But, that's not what happened. Instead, with great respect for each other and a feeling of safety to speak freely with each other, we each stated how we felt about these topics, gave some reasoning, and then listened to the other explain their points of view. It's how discussions like this should go, with neither trying to convert the other, but rather each learning from the other. While his views were more conservative and my views were more progressive, in the end we agreed that those little could-go-either-way details are nothing that should ever overshadow the big picture and get in the way of fellowship and communion; they shouldn't become something that disrupts the neighborhood or excludes anyone from being a part of it.
There are things that aren't meant to be completely figured out, because everyone's situation, needs, and trajectory is intended to be unique. If we all thought alike and had the same life experiences, where would grace fit in? Where would the unknown be? Why would we need faith? Why would loving our neighbor be so important if it weren't, at times, a challenge? In the end, my minister friend and I simply agreed to disagree on the details we are both trying to understand better, classifying them as grey areas, and agreed to agree that we need to encourage each other to accept grey areas, not legislate them as black and white or right and wrong, get over our own egos and self-righteous I’m-right-you’re-wrong attitudes, and move forward with love and respect while we each live by convictions we feel in our hearts and that make sense for our distinct situations. It seems the devil is, indeed, in the details, loving confusion and enmity. Good-neighborliness is neither about conformation nor correction, but rather it's about treating others with basic respect.
Instead of trying to fix or correct everyone else, maybe we can simply set an intention to support, befriend, empower, and uplift those who live by and share spirits of compromise, freedom, inclusion, and respect, and not those who foster spirits of bullheadedness, judgement, exclusion, and disrespect. Wouldn't that do it? Listen to, be influenced by, and share the considerate and positive voices, not giving power or control over our decisions to the ignorant and negative voices? And do this simple practice in our faith groups, politics, communities, schools, and families? Could the answer to progress and peace really be that simple? Empower respect and disempower disrespect? Yes. Yes, it can be. At least, it's the answer for progress and peace in our own hearts. I'm glad for those who are doing this. We need more of it; we need more open hands of friendship and not tight, stubborn fists of contention.
Obstinate mindsets prohibit progress, forward thinking, forward looking, and forward moving; obstinate mindsets make people feel less-than, marginalized, not worthy, not heard, not seen, and not valued. It's unacceptable. The world is a far better, richer, happier place if we instead give everyone room to be themselves and live their best lives, if we listen to and experience new-to-us perspectives, views, and beliefs, and if we open our eyes and minds to the rich beauty and diversity this world has to share with us. If we start to feel that we should stifle or correct someone because they're sharing viewpoints or making choices differently than we might, maybe the best tack would be to examine ourselves instead and try to live an example of how we know best to live, but not try to meddle in someone else's life when they're simply trying to do the same with what they know. As Ice Cube so wisely said, "Check yo' self before you wreck yo' self." We're not called to judge anyone but ourselves, but rather we're in fact called to be good neighbors. It's really quite simple.
All this being said, if we are people of faith we must not be afraid call out harmful ideologies when they circulate. Harmful ideologies are different than simple viewpoints; harmful ideologies lead to hurt being caused to a person or a group of people. It's harmful ideologies that lead to faith, a wonderful thing, sometimes being associated with terrible things like racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia. It's why the word Christian is vilified sometimes in sensationalist media and politics, which is so incredibly sad because Jesus represented, lived, and taught the complete opposite; he was and still is and will always be truly, plainly, and simply about love. I read a great quote from Richard Rohr the other day that summed it up: "Jesus tried to change people by loving and healing them. His harshest words of judgement were reserved for those who perpetuated systems of inequality and oppression and who, through religion itself, thought they were sinless and untouchable." Indeed, loud-mouthed religious extremists and pundits using the good name of Jesus to manipulate people and push political agendas are certainly to blame for this, but don't some of us regular old sheep caught in the crossfire also share in some of the blame? I certainly haven't always done my duty to call out those harsh, harmful ideologies when someone has had the gall to speak for my personal, individual faith without my consent. Maybe I was just trying to be kind and respectful, which is important and really what this whole becoming-very-long essay is about, but when that attempt at respect crosses the line to not calling out hate and discrimination, it then is giving harmful ideologies and the ignorant people who tout them validation and control that they should not have. And that's being a very bad neighbor, because we’re not performing that most basic neighborly responsibility of protecting the neighborhood from wolves.
I've spent some time in Al-Anon, another support group I depend on to keep my spirit in check. Al-Anon is for family, friends, and loved ones of those who are struggling with addiction, alcoholism, and/or substance abuse. Nearly everyone I know has a loved one with these struggles, and I am no different. My Al-Anon family is a group of completely different, diverse, sincere people from all walks of life that come together to hold hands, uplift, and support one another, letting each know that they're not alone. We close every meeting with the serenity prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change those that I can, and wisdom to know the difference." It's a constant reminder that I need and I'm grateful for my good neighbors who keep me grounded in its reality. When we're together and sharing our stories and our struggles to keep ourselves afloat while not spiraling down with the sinking ships that our loved ones seem to be captaining, we realize that humanity is so very fragile and our example can be so very powerful—not our opinions, not our hounding, and not our constant battling, but simply our example of putting on our own oxygen mask first, because only then can we attempt to help someone else with theirs.
We have no way of knowing fully what our neighbors are dealing with. We don't know their innermost hearts. We don't know their deepest intentions. And we don't know most of the unseen obstacles they may be facing, prejudices they endure daily and possibly have been enduring their entire lives, opportunities they've had or not had, obstinate people in their lives they've had to navigate, abuse they've faced, mental health challenges they cope with, trauma they're healing from, times their voices have been silenced, times they've been marginalized or made to feel less-than, debts they owe, or hopes and dreams they have. We have no right to speak for them, correct them, control them, or judge them. But we do have the responsibility to love them, to show them respect, and to allow them to be seen and heard in the spaces we have the power do to so.
I recently finished seasons one and two of The Gilded Age, back-to-back. For those who haven't watched it yet, it's truly worthwhile. Of course, this is coming from me, someone whose roots are strong in New York City where the show is set, as well as someone who was obsessed with the other not-to-miss series by the same creators, Downton Abbey. Anyway, in the second episode of The Gilded Age season one, Agnes van Rhijn, played by the uber-talented Christine Baranski, said something to the effect of (and I'm paraphrasing), "Prejudice, in a nutshell, is not being interested in the facts that interfere with our own beliefs." That hit home. Isn't that the opposite of being a good neighbor? Being prejudiced? Not listening to someone because we don't want to have our own beliefs challenged? Not respecting someone else's opinion? Not accepting the fact that we, ourselves, very well could be wrong? Letting our own trash drift over into someone else's yard when really we should just be letting them live their life freely?
My best friend Erin and I have been texting today because our high school
classmate Eric just won an Emmy for his amazing directing of Weird: The Al
Yankovic Story. It’s really exciting and we’re very proud to have known him.
Erin just mentioned that she guesses she’ll have to actually finish that movie now...and
we had a good laugh. Erin and I agree on almost everything and see pretty close
to eye-to-eye, but yet we are very different humans. While I was a big Weird Al
fan back in the day and absolutely loved the satirical biopic style that the
movie was made in, she had a hard time getting through it. And that’s awesome.
Because we’re friends and we're good neighbors. We love each other. We have fellowship
together. We want what’s best for each other. But we have different tastes. And
it’s beautiful. When she said that the movie didn’t make sense to her and I
told her it made total sense to me, she said, “I suppose that’s just something I
have to come to terms with.” I said, “Ain’t that just life.” And she said, “Ain’t
Can we make a deal as friends, citizens, and people who are trying to be decent humans to be good neighbors again? Let’s embrace the grey areas. Let's be kind. Let's have each other's backs, even when we don't agree with each other. Let's accept what we can't change, but have the courage to change what we can. Let's allow each other to do the best with what we know and not try to impose our own standards on each other. Let me do me and I’ll let you do you, keeping our own messes out of each other's lawns, and we’ll get together now and then at a block party and have a blast, loving our differences just as much as we love our similarities. It’s how this world is meant to work. Humans shouldn’t and won’t always agree, but we can indeed all get along if we allow ourselves to do so. We can compromise. We can allow each other to have freedom. We can show basic respect. We can listen to and learn from each other's viewpoints, but not be afraid to call out harmful ideologies and fulfil our basic duty of keeping our neighborhoods safe for everyone. And we can look forward—and then move forward—together.
This essay was originally published on askunclemarty.com as "Looking Forward" on January 7, 2024,
then edited, then changed to "Good-Neighborliness" and edited again,
then taken down, zhuzhed some more, republished on January 18, with final
zhuzhings at the end of January and early February.
Why the over-zhuzhing? I'm touching on some topics in here that currently weigh heavily on my heart and life. The friend in me wants to be authentic, the optimist in me wants to not worry, the introvert in me wants to keep everything in, the conflict-avoider in my wants to not make waves, the advocate in me wants to scream from the rooftops, the performer in me wants to make everything sparkly and smoke-screened, and the editor in me wants to make every detail perfect. But, as my dear friend and mentor Fahim often reminds me, perfection is the enemy of progress and the best friend of procrastination. So, for what it's worth, in whatever combination of authentic or smoke-screened, under-shared or over-shared it is, here you have it. Take it or leave it. As with all of my column's opinion sharing and advice giving, it's meant to be guidance, not control. Please take it with as many grains of salt as you need.