Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day! In honor of the non-violent civil rights activist’s birthday, I wanted to share three of his quotes, and how they’ve resounded with me. MLK helped show how words hold more power than violence, and with how today it seems that democracy is more like war, where the goal is to win at all costs, his words should be remembered and held as an example of how mortality can trump fear and how consciousness can quell hatred.
“Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.”
This resonates with me much more than the many years ago I first heard this quote. After ten years of friendship, someone I considered as a sibling betrayed me, and I felt an emotion I’d never experienced before: hate. It consumed me, completely turned my world upside down, and destroyed my empathy, a type of understanding and compassion I’d been proud of. I fell down a deep hole, so vast and dark that I lost all sense of myself. I enjoyed nothing, not even writing… I couldn’t write, because I detested everything I’d once believed in.
It took a long time for me to pull myself out of that hole, and there are still times where I regress to the precipice of that crevice. But hatred made me inhuman, and, today, I’m grateful to have regained my empathy.
Though I wish I’d never experienced hate, and I wouldn’t want anyone else to either, even though I know many do—sometimes it seems like hate has encompassed the world and made it uncompromising—going through that experience better opened my eyes to comprehend and share in the feelings of other, because I now have a deeper understanding of myself. I have seen the darkness within me, and rather than try to conquer it, I’ve accepted it. Through that acceptance I’m better able to defend against sinking so low again.
“Forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a constant attitude.”
Forgiving is not easy, especially when dealing with strong emotions or a lot of painful history. Hurt can quickly become a chasm. Through this fissure more hurt surges forth, and it’s easy for anger, denial, prejudice, discrimination, and hate to company it. The human survival instinct to hurt back, to retaliate suffering is very strong. So strong that forgiveness is too often left behind in the darkness.
It’s only when we make the determination to let go of resentment and revenge that we begin the process of forgiveness. It’s often a long and difficult journey, and doesn’t have a finish line. We can always forgive and then take a step back and return to the hatred. But we need forgiveness in order to thrive. We need it to meaningfully connect to others, even if we often disagree with those people. We need forgiveness in order to love.
I know how hard it is to forgive. The friend that betrayed me has never apologized, and never will. I did not want to forgive, because I yearned for this person to empathize with how I felt, to regret their actions, to realize the pain they’d caused, and in doing so help restore my ability to trust and love others. But I discovered that to recover I had to heal myself, and recovery meant forgiving that person.
I’d thought that forgiveness meant that person had power over me, meant that person was absolved of any wrongdoing, and meant that the wrongdoing must be forgotten. Believing this only led to more bitterness.
At first, forgiving this person was only words. But, after conscious intention and, sometimes, painful undertaking, I was able to genuinely forgive that person. Though, occasionally, the bitterness and anger and pain creep back and I must again consciously accept that I’m disappointed I’ll never receive the apology I desperately want, and then I must, once more, choose to forgive. I refuse to let hurt dictate my life; I will not be a victim to the inability to forgive. I am grateful for far more than I resent.
“He who is devoid of the power to forgive, is devoid of the power to love.”
Love is essential to move forward in life. Love is necessary for compromise, for understanding, for peace. I remember watching the comedy “Miss Congeniality” with Sandra Bullock starring as Gracie Hart. The movie was about an FBI agent, who went undercover as a contestant in the Miss United States beauty pageant to prevent a bombing at the event. It was hilarious and I’ve watched the movie many times since.
One part that’s stuck with me is how the beauty contestants all answer “world peace” to the question “What is the one most important thing our society needs,” and how Bullock’s character makes fun of them for it.
At first glance, such an answer seems ridiculous. Surely, our society needs many other things before world peace. After all, our society doesn’t necessarily apply to the world, and, the society of each country has to think about itself before the societies of other countries.
But if I were asked that same question, I’d answer with world peace, because that means that all countries would work with each other. We’d learn to forgive the past and move forward to create a future where we can thrive.
World peace would mean that we’d learned to love each other more that hate, that we’d transcended past the often minute differences and accepted that we hold the same universal truths. If we achieved world peace, the possibilities for the future would be endless.
The human race is amazing. Our curiosity, our potential has enabled us to achieve incredible things, and also commit atrocities that make non-fiction read like fiction, but if everyone took the time to empathize—to forgive—the possibilities of what we, as a species, could accomplish are endless.
I leave you with one extra quote:
“We must live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”
As I look at my country, and at other countries, I’m reminded of this quote, and so often I’m saddened by what I see in the world. I believe that there is other life in the universe, but that is not yet a fact. This world is all we have. We would greatly miss it, if it were gone, and greatly regret any of our actions that led to its end.
(Photo courtesy of Henk Sijgers.)