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This year, as we honor Martin Luther King, Jr., we face many uncertainties that may keep us from centering ourselves in his message of peace and social transformation. Among these uncertainties, a deadly pandemic that keeps us from our families, jobs, and places of worship, and a political system that has been bent to its very foundation. The good news is that our democracy has prevailed. This can give us hope as we look for ways to celebrate the legacy of MLK when it seems as if we are so far away from the “Dream” he had for us and for the nation.
Throughout his life, Martin Luther King was driven by “an inner urge to serve humanity.” He was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s approach to nonviolent protest and civil disobedience. He lived out Gandhi’s belief that, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” What does this mean for us in these unprecedented times? We answer the question for ourselves by listing the times we have shoveled an elderly neighbor’s snow while shoveling our own, or when we picked up a friend’s child after school as we picked up our own child. This kind of service -- though absolutely worthy – is easy.
What about the service to others that takes you out of your philosophical bulwark? Those instances require more from us. Opportunities for us to achieve what Brené Brown calls a “Whole-hearted, deep sense of worthiness” are all around us. Below are six authentic ways that we can serve ourselves and others, through Dr. King’s own words, while honoring the doctrine of service by which he lived.
1. Make Connections
“Too often we underestimate the power of a…listening ear… which [has] the potential to turn a life around.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
A sense of worthiness can come in the form of a conversation with someone who disagrees with you. Dr. King traveled all over the country listening to the grievances of those “stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity.” But he also listened to those invested in maintaining the status quo. These conversations were not easy for him. They are not easy for us, but with an ear turned to really listen we break old patterns. These conversations should not be a monologue, but a dialogue meant to forge connections with another person, something human beings are hard-wired to do.
2. Educate Yourself
“The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a learned man. In addition to Gandhi, he was also inspired by Henry David Thoreau, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas. We can become allies in the cause of unity and social justice by exposing ourselves to the thinkers and leaders who inspired Dr. King. We can also seek out those who provide context as well as subtext for this moment in our history. Books written by authors like Michelle Alexander, Isabel Wilkerson and TahNehisi Coates may cause discomfort, or what Dr. King called “a type of nonviolent tension necessary for growth.” But when we resolve to be an ally in the struggle, we find that the discomfort has been replaced by a higher understanding, just as the temporary pain of a massage is replaced by a greater range of motion.
3. Write from Your Heart
“Never, before have I written so long a letter... but what else can one do when he is alone…other than write long letters, think long thoughts, and pray long prayers?” Martin Luther King, Jr.
In 1963, Dr. King was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama. During his eight days of confinement, he wrote the words above in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In it, Dr. King defended the Civil Rights Movement on moral and religious grounds. In this time of isolation, many of us turn to our journals in service to our own self-care. It only takes a moment to jot down a few affirmations to adjust our mindset for the barrage of must-do’s and need-to’s that confront each of us daily. Affirmative journal entries like, “I listen to my intuition and trust my inner guide” and “I will use my time and talents to help others” allow us to refocus on the positive and relinquish the negative. These affirmations can be shared with others to soothe and comfort them, as well. This is a time to share our joy and not just on the screens of social media sites. As we try hard to stop the spread of a deadly virus, we should not forget that which should be spread--joy can also be contagious.
4. Share the Gift of Reading
“…whenever anything new comes into history, it brings with it new responsibilities and new challenges.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
The pandemic and its accompanying quarantine has brought with it learning challenges for our children. Distance learning means some children may not have access to the books that spark their imagination. This makes it more important than ever to help them continue to appreciate books and remain excited about learning. We can help them by becoming virtual story time readers who create videos of ourselves reading well-written children’s books. There are many children’s books that highlight the life and legacy of Dr. King. Books like Be a King, I am Martin Luther King, Jr. and My Uncle Martin’s Big Heart place Dr. King squarely within the American historical narrative in ways accessible to children. These books can also be a pathway to educating non-Black children about the MLK holiday, as well as foster a life-long love of reading.
5. Pay It Forward
“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is what are you doing for others?” Martin Luther King, Jr.
Food is healing and can boost our mood; it provides nutrition and comfort. Healthcare workers, who are on the frontlines every day are in need of that nutritional comfort. The next time you indulge in epicurean pleasures, think about paying it forward. Arrange to have a meal delivered through DoorDash or Grubhub to essential workers at a local hospital, nursing home, or fire station. These citizens provide care and comfort to our loved ones at tremendous risk to themselves. Sometimes, all it takes is what Dr. King called “a heart full of grace” to make others feel that their efforts are worthwhile.
6. Look Inward
"Occasionally in life there are those moments which cannot be completely explained by those symbols called words. Their meanings can only be articulated by the inaudible language of the heart." Martin Luther King, Jr.
Lastly, we can all benefit from looking inward; examining within will guide us to listen inward. The words of Dr. King have been read and studied for generations. We can begin to resolve the deficit that Dr. King referred to as, “allow[ing] the internal to become lost in the external” by posing a simple four-word question to ourselves: How can I help? When we close our eyes and really listen, we are demonstrating the belief that the universe has an answer for us. Perhaps the answer will not be in the form of any of the opportunities mentioned here, but the most important step is the asking.
President Ronald Reagan signed into law the bill making Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday in 1983. Regardless of race, spiritual allegiance, political beliefs, or sexual orientation, each of us can be elevated out of our own discomfort by losing ourselves in service to others, especially on a day like Martin Luther King Day. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King wrote that “[w]e are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality…what affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” He was right. Service elevates both the server and the served. We cannot experience the mutuality of service without being changed by it for the better.