Monday, January 19, 2009

Dangerous Unselfishness

On April 3, 1968, the day before he was killed, Dr. Martin Luther King gave the now infamous speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” at Mason Temple in Memphis. In the beginning of this speech, Dr. King poses a powerful rhetorical question: “If I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up until now, and the Almighty said to me, ‘Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?’” what would I decide?

Dr. King, slowly and melodically, takes the audience on a mental flight through time in answering this question. He goes by ancient Egypt as the slaves cross the Red Sea to the promised land; by ancient Greece where he could hang out with Socrates and Plato; by the Renaissance with its burst of aesthetic and cultural creativity; by the time of his name sake Martin Luther and the stir he was causing during the Reformation; by the time of Abraham Lincoln who struggled in concluding to sign the Emancipation Proclamation; by the time of economic strife in the 1930s.

Dr. King concludes that he would like to live now, in the 1960s, as he was, and that he would like to be in Memphis at that moment in time, despite knowing that his life was in danger as he spoke about at the end of this magnificent speech. “I would turn to the Almighty, and say, ‘If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.’” Dr. King cites “another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history… Survival means that we grapple with them.”

Deep in the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, Dr. King tells the story of the Good Samaritan. Dr. Kings says, “Now you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn’t stop,” meaning that we tend to give them a break due to their busy lives, full of position and responsibility, excusing their “compassion by proxy.” Dr. King speaks about visiting the Jericho road outside of Jerusalem with Mrs. King. He says he could easily see why Jesus chose the road from Jericho as the setting for the parable because the Jericho road is winding and curvy, perfect for ambushing thieves. It is a dangerous road. Dr. King concludes that the Levite and the Priest were more concerned about their own safety, asking “what will happen to me if I stop to help this man?” But the Good Samaritan asked out of empathy, reversing this question, “What will happen to this man if I don’t stop to help him?” Dr. King calls this empathy in action “dangerous unselfishness” and compels his audience to stand up for and by their brethren in “dangerous unselfishness” like that of the Good Samaritan.

In what ways can each one of us bring more dangerous unselfishness to our lives? This is not only the question of the day, I think it represents a shift in our consciousness as a country. I think young people are deciding in droves that building their lives around the accumulation of money, position, and power lacks soulfulness. I think we are seeing a rise in people's desire to develop a sense of purpose and a call to action to rebuild the collective health and welfare of our society that is significant. It is going to be extremely interesting to watch as President Obama strives to create and lead this new consciousness. I wish him all the best and will be vigilant and responsive to ways I can do my part.

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