Everybody passionately seeks to be well-adjusted. But there are some things in our world to which men of good will must be maladjusted.
-Martin Luther King Jr
That could have been written today (although I’d substitute “people” for men – lots of maladjusted women out here too) rather than in 1963 as part of a sermon titled Transformed Nonconformist given in the Atlanta church where his father preached.
It’s Saturday and I’m just finishing the post I planned to complete by midweek but the holiday weekend and other writing assignments took much of my time. I’ve actually started four pieces but struggle to find time or motivation to finish any of them in the midst of so much bleak news.
The long weekend is long gone and a new one has started. This past one was enriched twofold: with visiting family (my sister and brother-in-law and then my niece) and it made such a difference to have time for sharing good food and conversation with others, to feel accepted rather than judged, to have a respite from the isolation that’s part of daily life; and to celebrate a meaningful holiday, to those who observe it.
I wish MLK Day was taken more seriously, and not just as a day off or opportunity to give a cursory shout out to a well-known speech. We’ve reduced his legacy to a few sound-bites, like a band touring with a new album where the audience just wants the old hits. “Read ‘I have a Dream‘ man!” It reminds me of taking B to his first concert, to see the Shins, when he was 11. He couldn’t believe he had to sit through an opening act and then a whole concert filled with songs he’d never heard as well as the handful he knew and that it took until the last encore to hear “New Slang.” We both enjoyed the concert and while we weren’t there for a teachable moment it was a good opportunity to learn that an artist or author has a body of work, and the unfamiliar or less known can be as powerful as the better known material.
In his own lifetime King had a similar version of his fans wanting him to stick to his greatest hits, the familiar theme of civil rights, and not to voice his anti-war stance or pursue the economic justice efforts of the Poor People’s Campaign. He had come to Memphis, where he was assassinated in 1968, to join with 1,3000 black sanitation workers protesting poor pay and dangerous working conditions, provoked to organize a strike after the death of two workers in garbage compactors. The strikers wore placards that said I AM A MAN. King connected this work to his earlier fights, asking: What good is it to be able to sit an an integrated lunch counter if you can’t afford a burger?
Between constant death threats and his growing unpopularity from stepping outside the box, King was really depressed at the end of his life. His friends and colleages described the enormous sense of despair he projected. But still he persevered, until his murder on that tragic day in Memphis, ending his life at age 39.
Depression has been linked to radical empathy, actively striving to better understand and share the feelings of others. But it also can be soul-crushing, eroding any hope that you can build a better future. How can things improve? Can they really change? The depressed mind dreads, it sees a winter day and can’t imagine the snow will ever melt. Or it’s terrified the snow is melting too fast because the world has heated up and how are we supposed to feel hope in this scary hostile time?
This year I’m devoted to chipping away at despair and isolation to create a life with more connections, more time breaking bread with others; more writing and opportunities to be seen and valued. I’m hoping for more awareness that we all belong and deserve the same rights and opportunities, that as King said “Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” I’m hoping that people come together and fight for a common good, creating momentum to turn collective disappointment into positive action. I’m hoping that whatever happens in the month and year ahead we don’t quit, that in our maladjusted state we keep fighting as hard and smart as we can to change for the better.