I was out sick all last week and flat on my back, but one thing I crawled out of bed for on Sunday was to watch on TV the dedication of the MLK Memorial. We often want to lionize King – and well we should – but I am even more struck by how he personally persevered and the lessons for ourselves. King’s legacy, and that of those who came before and after him, can be hard to fully comprehend; it was that large. It is also moving to see how his words and actions – indeed, his approach – still resonates so deeply today. He is an American icon, touchstone, and conscious for us all.
And yet, it would be easy to honor King without truly recognizing how he fought his way forward. It is by examining his personal struggles that those of us who seek to create change and build a better society must examine ourselves.
So, here are some things that this weekend’s dedication brought to the fore for me:
- There was a moment, or probably a constellation of moments, which led King to answer a larger calling to step forward and to knowingly declare, “Here I Am.” In this way, King made a declaration first to himself of his intentions and the personal values that would guide his life’s work. I have come to believe that each of us, in our own way, must make such a personal declaration.
- But the declaration on its own was never enough. King faced enormous personal doubts along the away and he questioned his own religious faith at times. Yes, even King had doubts and fears. What about each of us? My own personal experience – and my experience over 25 years of working with change-makers – is that such doubt and fear is always present, sometimes in the forefront of our mind, other times in the background. They are natural, and we cannot escape them. And they are not a sign of weakness, just our human frailties. So, the question is not whether such doubts exist within each of us, but how we choose to deal with them: are we willing to face them squarely, work through them, understand that they are part and parcel of our lives, and not let them consume us?
- For every victory King had, he experienced even more defeats and setbacks. This each of us must know if we wish to create change and a better society. And here, again, the question is not whether such defeats and setbacks will happen, but how we choose to deal with them. For with such setbacks, we, as individuals, inevitably must confront loss and pain and deep frustration. Nothing good comes easily. It seems to me that we must not try to escape this pain and loss, but to embrace it, learn from it, grow from it, and continue to search for better and more effective ways to move forward.
- These lessons also require us to take a long view of our efforts. Toward this end, we would do well to adopt a kind of “impatient patience.” Isn’t this what King did? He never let go of his sense of purpose, nor did he not sit idly as his efforts ebbed and flowed. He pushed and pushed and pushed! But he knew that his efforts, and those of others, would come about only over time. Indeed, recall this well-known quote of Abolitionist Theodore Parker that King often used: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Yes, “impatient patience” is what we must exercise.
- Finally, King expressed and lived by an enduring belief in “people.” Imagine how many times he and his fellow travelers were imprisoned, attacked with water hoses, and had rocks and debris thrown at them, among other things. Even amid all these trials he maintained his deep faith in the capacity of people to choose a better path. Our own challenge today is to make sure we do not say that we hold this belief, but act in ways where we truly live it out. I believe King reminds each of us that we must examine our own belief in people – especially amid the evil and bad things that do occur – and whether our actions actually match our words.
What is so beautiful and compelling about King’s messages is that they ask us to strip away our to-do lists, the press of our daily projects, our immediate funding needs and to ground ourselves in what truly is important. They tell us that we cannot out run doubt, pain, fear, even despair; that they are real and human reactions to the very struggles embedded in what seek to do. Our task, as individuals, is to declare, “Here I am” and to engage fully in what stands before us and within us.
So, as we celebrate King’s enormous contribution let us use this occasion to remind ourselves of our own journey and the choices we must face and how we can continue down a path of creating stronger communities and a better society – for all.