Episode 36: Growing Up is Serious Business
with Ambassador Andrew Young

Ambassador Young sat down with Keith to discuss how to deal with internal conflicts in external reality, how reconciliation is coming together 'in spite of', determining the kind of legacy you want to leave, seeking meaning and direction in life, and ultimately, how growing up is a serious business.

Ambassador Young was exceptionally generous with his time, and this episode was recorded in two parts totaling over two and a half hours. We edited it down to a shorter version for the podcast, but if you would like to see the conversation in its entirety, you can watch it here.

Most of the podcast comes from the second conversation, but the first part is also rich with stories and wisdom so we encourage you to check it out.

About our guest

Connect with Ambassador Young
via Facebook & the Andrew Young Foundation

Purchase Ambassador Young's book:  "An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America"

In the decades since Andrew Young helped change the course of history as a leader in the Civil Rights movement, he has built a remarkable legacy as a civic activist, elected official, groundbreaking ambassador, social entrepreneur, and adviser to presidents. Today, he leads the Andrew J. Young Foundation’s efforts to develop and support new generations of visionary leaders who will create sustainable global approaches to economic development, poverty alleviation, and the challenge of hunger.

Young attended segregated schools in New Orleans and graduated early from Howard University before attending Hartford Theological Seminary. It was during his time as a pastor in southern Georgia that he became active in the Civil Rights movement, organizing voter registration drives in 1954 in the face of death threats. After a few years with the National Council of Churches in New York, he returned to Georgia in 1961 to lead the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s “citizenship schools,” working closely with Dr. King to teach non-violent organizing strategies. He was a key strategist and negotiator during campaigns that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Andrew Young.

In 1972, Young was elected to Congress, becoming the first African-American representative from the Deep South since Reconstruction. He sponsored legislation that established a U.S. Institute for Peace, The African Development Bank and the Chattahoochee River National Park, while negotiating federal funds for MARTA (Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority), the Atlanta highway system and a new international airport for Atlanta.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed Young to serve as the nation’s first African-American Ambassador to the United Nations. Young was an architect of the first U.S. Africa policy grounded in human rights rather than simply cold war calculus, and he helped negotiate an end to white-minority rule in Namibia and Zimbabwe.

Young was instrumental in the building of modern-day Atlanta. He was elected Mayor in 1981 and re-elected in 1985 with nearly 85 percent of the vote. Hartsfield International Airport, whose development he championed, made it possible for Atlanta to attract 1,100 new businesses, $70 billion in foreign direct investment, and 1 million new jobs to the region during his tenure. It is now the busiest airport in the world. The city hosted the Democratic National Convention in 1988. Young also led the successful effort to bring the 1996 Olympic Games to Atlanta.

Young’s involvement with Africa has continued in the years since his term as ambassador. President Bill Clinton appointed him founding chair of the Southern African Enterprise Development Fund, and in 1996 he co-founded Good Works International, where for more than 15 years he promoted an approach to sustainable economic development in Africa and the Caribbean grounded in profitability and social responsibility. Through the Andrew J. Young Foundation and its partnerships with international agencies and the private sector, he continues to focus on expanding educational opportunity as well as innovative approaches to alleviating hunger and poverty in the U.S. and abroad.

Young is the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the French Legion d’Honneur and has received honorary degrees from more than 100 colleges and universities.

Episode transcript

Keith: Well, Ambassador Andrew Young, welcome to the Growing as Grown-Ups podcast. Personally, on behalf of our audience, I just want to thank you for spending time with us today and sharing some of your wisdom, perhaps about how you've grown over the years yourself, but also your take on how we all, perhaps, can keep growing. To make better sense of this world, that just seems increasingly polarized. So, you know, early this year, you officially entered your ninth decade, I don't know if you've thought about it like that yet, I know you're coming up on your 90th, and I hope that's OK to say. It's a congratulations from my perspective.  

Andrew: Well, thank you. Let me just say that I turned 90 and one of the ideas I've had is to challenge all of my friends to set aside 90 minutes any time in their lives for reconciliation.

Keith:  Wow.  

Andrew: And I started thinking of some of the people that I have had conflicts with and I never express it but, you know, I don't quite get over it, and I decided that I needed to take some time before my 90th birthday, or in the process of celebrating it, to go back and reconcile with some of the people -- and there are not many -- that I had conflicts with and it's not charging them with conflicts or, but even confessing how much I was wrong is -- reconciliation is a coming together in spite of and --.  

Keith: Wow.  

Andrew: Whatever I did and for whatever reason I did it, quite often it had very little to do with the person who ended up being the source of conflict or who took the burden of my frustration. Growing up grown-ups is not a simple question, because we expect everybody to be grown up and we never stopped growing and when we stop growing, or when we slow down even though when we get -- when we let the conflicts of life disturb us and we turn in on ourselves, we're finding fault with ourselves, but we're blaming it on those around us.  

Keith: Wow.  

Andrew: Unconsciously, see? So that one of the most important aspects of growing up is being able to deal with your internal conflicts in external reality, because the more you take in, the more you're upset and the upset, you know, increases the acidity in the stomach and, I mean, there are physical consequences to emotional disturbance. And so growing as grown-ups is managing internal stress and external conflicts because the tendency is to take them for granted, ignore them, and not take them seriously but one of the responsibilities -- requirements -- of being grown-up is to take responsibility for your own health and your own feelings and it's too easy to project them on others.  

Keith: Wow. Yes.  

Andrew: And I think that's what our politicians are doing right now. Everybody is talking about all of the things that are wrong and so much of it. Is due to the fact that the coronavirus has separated us and it's kept us from meeting our friends regularly, and it's kept us from going to work regularly and when you're at work, you know, and you know you're going to be there from 9-5 most days, the tensions that arise in your relationship, you're right there and you deal with before you come home but now you're home and you're not able to leave your work at work. Your work is at home, so you've got home tensions and it's not just you, it's our wives. They are, going to the drugstore, and planning to make a lettuce and tomato salad, and there's no lettuce. Or there's a shortage of toilet paper or napkins and somebody says something about the supply chain, and we've never had to think about the supply chain before, see? But all of these external conflicts, we're internalizing right now and so it's inevitable we have more stress to deal with ourselves because the normal ways of relieving stress are not available to us.  

Keith: And one of the things I hear you saying, maybe, but I want you to correct it if I'm wrong is, is that we take that internal stress and we almost project it out or blame others or circumstances in ways that is not keeping -- it's not allowing us to deal with what we really need to deal with.  

Andrew: Well, yeah, because when you have a shortage at the grocery store, you don't deal with it at the grocery store. You deal with it when you come home and you say something sharp to your spouse.  

Keith: Yeah.  

Andrew: Or you're a little impatient with the kids, see? Or the phone rings, and you really don't want to talk to this person, but normally you would talk to them in a relaxing conversation but when the phone rings and you're already stressed out, the possibility is that this is somebody else bringing their stress to you, which is usually what happens to me because everybody thinks of me as their pastor and I've encouraged people to bring me their troubles throughout my life. Now, I'm not as anxious to have that happen and when –we just had a mayor's race and my candidate didn't win. Well, normally, we bring people together and reconcile and go on to the next question but in this environment, everybody is so short-tempered that when I've talked to people about -- I don't even get a chance to say, "It's time for us to come together." They're still complaining about the election, and it might not be the election, it might be the fact that they've been home alone and haven't been talking to anybody, and so life is -- this has been a very complicated time of life. The regimen of your life that keeps you healthy is mental, spiritual, emotional, and it all ends up being physical and so growing up is serious business.  

Keith: Yeah. It definitely is.  

Andrew: And using myself as an example, which is what we need to do.  

Keith: Yeah. To use ourself as an example?  

Andrew: Yeah. That we use ourselves as an example not to get upset but to rationalize the things that we need to do and help us to get more organized in doing them and being able to do it without anxiety or without guilt. One of the things that I think people give preachers or religious people a bad name is they want to blame their religion for their guilt. Whereas as a Christian, I see religion as a religion of grace and mercy, and God helps you through the church and through your neighbors not to carry a burden of guilt because when you're carrying a burden of guilt about something, inevitably you're passing it on to those around you. So a good place to start is accepting your shortcomings as inevitable and have a no-fault analysis for yourself. Yeah, my knees hurt, see, but for 70 years, I was a runner and bicycler and it's only been in the last 10 or 15 years that I have any pain and I decided that I would rather have little pain than to take on the whole challenge of knee replacements and I live with that and accept that as a decision that I made instead of the decision that the doctors made.  

Keith: Ambassador Young, you've said it in so many ways. I mean, just from the routine maintenance of being healthy, for people who feel stuck relationally, for people who feel stuck in their position, for all the division that we have, what advice do you have to folks two, three generations younger than you to not have this stuckness become crippling?  

Andrew: Well, that's why, I mean, my first answer is a church answer and that is that it's one of the major reasons why we need to accept God's forgiveness. As a preacher, not even as a preacher, I probably became a preacher because I graduated from college, very young and here I am, 19-years-old with a college degree and guilty as hell, because I know I don't know a damn thing and it's almost like I had wasted all that educational opportunity but instead of feeling guilty about it, it suddenly -- I suddenly was able to accept that fact that that gave me a head start and then by the time I got to Atlanta and I realized, you know, that Martin Luther King, Maynard Jackson, and a lot of the promising young leaders had all gone to college at 15 and it had something to do with the Second World War, with the veterans and, in a way, the colleges were empty and some of them -- colleges started letting people in without -- after the 11th grade, if they could pass certain tests. I was not one of those; I cheated on the beginning. I learned to read and write in a church-related kindergarten and when I went to public school at six years old, instead of putting me in first grade, they put me in sixth grade -- I mean, third grade, and so being in third grade at six years old, I was always ahead and always frustrated and always young and restless and wild, but I hated that when I was in school because it made me too young to play football or basketball and I was good in sports. I was just too small. But it also meant that I had to take seriously all of the social battles and whereas most young people go through high school and college, rather relaxed area -- regimen, I was always struggling, you know, with everything but mostly my teachers and my classmates. Because I was younger, I was restless but I didn't want anybody to treat me different and but then I looked back and I realized that all [of that was part of my education and my ability to assume leadership at a young age came from my struggling to be accepted and pushing myself into leadership roles or whatever, I don't know. I'm not trying to analyze my childhood.  Whatever it was, I decided, "Well, God knew what he was doing and it worked for me," because everything I've been pushed into, I've been able to do acceptably, if not excellently. But that didn't stop me from having a C average all the way through school, but that's what it took to keep you there.  

Keith: Yeah, and --.  

Andrew: There again, I reassured myself, because Martin Luther King got a "C" in public speaking at Morehouse.  

Keith: Maybe we're using the wrong grading standard.  

Andrew: They gave him a "C" in preaching at his theological seminary, which just means that their concept of preaching was different from what he grew up with.  

Keith: Yeah. I know we don't have much time left, but when you think about, again, so many people feel stuck. They feel stuck and divided, and I love the -- I love your thoughts on being separated. It reminds me of Dr. King's speech at Cornell, where he talked about why men hate each other and ultimately because they're separated and they and they can't know each other. But this -- so many people feel trapped in their position and friends in our neighborhood, right, friends in our church, family members for crying out loud, that are sitting on different sides of the issue, and they can't seem to rise above and I'm just, I'm curious if you have a thought on --  

Andrew: I do and actually, that's what church is for. That's what sports are for. That's what neighborhood associations are for. But see, we've been having our neighborhood associations by Zoom instead of with a backyard cookout.  

Keith: Yeah.  

Andrew: And you don't get the same catharsis because we're restricted by a set time and so there's nobody plugs in the time of a Zoom call time for laughter, time for empathy. In the meeting in the backyard or having a, you know, something in the neighborhood where we're face to face, we're not restricted by time, and a lot of things happen that we're not even aware of them happening. I preached a couple of Sundays weeks ago and I went back to my old days in World War II, when the Andrew Sisters used to sing a song, "You got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch to the affirmative, don't mess with Mister In-between," and that's what I preached about, because I said, we needed that positive attitude because they were sinking ships off the coast of Georgia. The Germans were and we were about to deal with what was the worst war, but I went back and I remembered some of the lessons we learned to get through that war. How many times where we say, from Franklin Roosevelt, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," and we've been afraid of this virus and when your closest friends  -- and in my age group, some of my closest, healthiest friends, you know, didn't make it and, fortunately, I grew up in a family where we were taught not to be afraid of death and Martin Luther King used to say to us, "You know, you're going to die. Death is the ultimate democracy. Everybody's got to die, and you don't have anything to say about where you die, when you die, how you die. The only choice you have is, what is it you're willing to give your life for?" but there's no hiding place and my grandmother used to pray to God that she was tired. She had done all she needed to do here on this Earth, she was ready to go on to glory, and Martin Luther King was in his 30s, but he would talk about death all the time because he said, "I know there's a bullet waiting for me somewhere," and the way he'd deal with it, he said, "But you all are always jumping in front of me trying to get your picture in the paper. I figured you'd jump in front of me and take it for me."    And then he'd start preaching your funeral and making -- and saying all of the embarrassing things you'd never want said at your funeral and you stop and think later, you know, "How can he be so heartless?" Well, he wasn't. He was dealing with his own inevitability of death and he was really getting us ready, so any time we were going into something that was dangerous, he would decide who it might be and then he'd start preaching their funeral in their face, and saying all the embarrassing things that you would never want said at your funeral and -- but we were able to laugh at death and that's one of the things that's necessary right now, especially when I just saw somebody talk about how the curve for the next phase of the epidemic might go in the winter months if it sort of integrates with the flu or -- I was a biology they didn't have DNA when I was in school. They didn't know what it was, but I know enough about the -- I know that germs are active organisms that are driven to grow, to compete, and to succeed so that there's a constant battle going on, going on even on your fingertips and then your hands and your body is always trained -- a part of growing up is your body training itself to detect the harmful germs and build up defenses against them, and actually, that's what a vaccine does.  

Keith: Yeah. Is that metaphorically, is there a vaccine for, I don't know what many would call kind of an illness, I think, a pandemic of division and -- on so many different levels?  

Andrew: There is. In fact, there are numbers of vaccines. I was married for 40 years and my first wife died of liver cancer and the last movie we went to before she went into the hospital was Bodyguard and where Whitney Houston sang "I Will Always Love You". And so when she died, I used to just ride around the expressway and listen to that song and until one day I turned on the music station and I heard the original version by Dolly Parton and Vince Gill and there was so much more emotion and spiritual power in the country version than the modern version that I started listening to country music and country music became a bridge to me, for all of the anxiety and, I mean, I began to understand why white people who have different challenges than I do sing different songs now. The integration of music in the last -- the last time I saw the Emmys, they had uniquely integrated country western music with the Blues and Jazz and that's one of the ways we overcome these -- the isolation and insecurity of being human. Now, the other way has been sports. They won't just -- I mean, everybody in Atlanta is going to be out on the streets this afternoon celebrating the Braves, see, and the -- all when we won the Olympics. It was -- it brought the town together because we realized wouldn't have gotten the Olympics if we hadn't celebrated every ethnic group in the city. I mean, having a big Hispanic community meant that when the Hispanic representatives from the Olympic Committee came to Atlanta, we had a big community reading them in Spanish and put them to their homes and showed them how we were living. We did the same thing with, well, I didn't know we had a Polish community in Atlanta.    I just figured everything was black and white, but we had a Polish community that was not only fluent and still spoke the language, but they reached out. In fact, they went out on their own to bring the Polish delegate here and convince him that he should vote for Atlanta and they told him, "We'd be glad to have you bring the families of athletes to live in our homes for free so they can see their sons and daughters in the Olympics," and that was not only the key to our Olympic success, I realize that's the reason why we've been tracking so much international business. See, that people can come here and feel comfortable because there are people just like us and we formed a soccer team and at the first soccer match, there were 68,000 fans, because most of the people come from places where they don't play football. They play a little baseball, but everybody in the world plays soccer. So, sports -- you can't find a football team that's all one way or the other. Even the historically black colleges are attracting white athletes because they think it'll better prepare them for the pros and it's one of the things that makes our society successful, and we don't think about it enough, and that's why I appreciate what you're doing with your Leaders Lyceum.  

Keith: Yes.  

Andrew: And is it -- We need to do more of this and we need to do it in almost every aspect of our lives that we've been quite broad, quite general with today, and that was necessary to -- well, I didn't -- I don't know how you're thinking of it, but it's almost like we've been trying to build a curriculum.  

Keith: Yeah.  

Andrew: And...  

Keith: Do you know, I'm finally getting there, but the thread, the thread that I hear emerging in almost every story you've is that there's a coming together that there's intentionality and regularity in coming together and building those relationships and in not just being known but knowing the other differently, perhaps I don't know. I don't want to put words in your mouth, but that -

Andrew: Oh, but you are. You're saying what I'm trying to say. I'm trying to say that life develops certain rituals that are necessary for the survival of civilization, see, and gospel music, country music, jazz, sports, politics. I mean, we -- right now, our politics is divided because we have gotten to a consensus where everybody could be either Democrat, Republican or we had a few independents who were independent because they wanted to go both sides and now, we had an election that left us divided.  

Keith: Yeah. Hey, you've been so generous with your time, and I know you surely you've got things on you -- lunch, at least probably -- but as you scan the horizon of maybe even our globe, but certainly our country right now, and you and you consider leadership, where's your greatest hope? I know it's in God, you've spoken of that before, but is there a movement? Is there -- are there people? Is there something you've seen that gives you hope right now for your children's generation and their children's generation?  

Andrew: Well, I mean, when you said, is there something that gives you hope? My grandmother used to say, "My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ love and righteousness." You know, "I dare not trust the sweetest frame" or something, "But only lean on Jesus’ name," and I do. I go back to the Bible and I go back to Elisha. "Wait on the Lord, be of good courage, and He will strengthen your heart. Wait,” I say,” on the Lord. They that wait on the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles. They will run and not get weary. They will walk and not faint." See, and there are enough, I mean, the Bible is a book of struggle and that verse was probably written just about the time that the temple was destroyed in Israel, but it has probably been the one of the verses that has held together people for centuries. In the New Testament, you know, it's the stories of Jesus, but my grandmother was would say the 23rd Psalm every day, you know, especially the part: "Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil," and I think that's what literature is for. Literature of all kinds.    They made us learn Rudyard Kipling's "If" when I joined my college fraternity. "You can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you; If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, And yet make allowances for their doubting too," see, and it's, I mean, that's what literature is about and in my times of struggle, I usually find some song, some poem, some book -- a biography -- of somebody who struggled with similar issues and you can't write a book unless you triumph, and my book -- the book I wrote about the civil rights movement is called An Easy Burden and, and the thing is that I wanted people to realize that being black has never been a burden to me. I mean, I've always seen it as a blessing and, well, Jesus said, "Take my yoke on you and learn of me, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light," and my grandmama used to say that and so, I found that in the darkest hours of my life, like the death of Martin Luther King, the death of my wife, that  somehow, those deaths are never an end. I would say that my first wife is still a voice in my heart and my life because we were together for 40 years. Since she died, I've been married 25 more years to another woman and, fortunately, they knew each other.    But with Martin Luther King, I was talking to some of his family and it's hard for them to see this, but I said, you know, your father is probably much more powerful and alive today than he was in 1968 when he was assassinated. That hardly a day goes by when you don't hear somebody quote him about something.  

Keith: That's right. Ambassador Young, the generosity of your time, just sharing your thoughts, there are many of us in the adult development, psychological -- people who study this for a living that think that you are one of the most important living figures today and  for you to make your time available to me and our audience, I just can't tell you it's been one of the joys of COVID for me.  

Andrew: But you're giving me a chance to meet your entire audience. Otherwise, I'm just talking to myself back here in this little bubble. Thank you very much for giving me the invitation.  

Keith: My pleasure and my honor. Thank you. Thank you so much.