The words of Martin Luther King, Jr. ring true today
Every year as this week rolls around the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., resonate.
His actions, his deeds, his battles against racial and economic injustice never lose their power, but seem, with each passing year, as his birthday is celebrated, to gain topicality, to grow in relevance.
King would be in his 90s had an assassin’s bullet not cut him down in his prime, but what, one has to wonder, would King think of the schisms that remain, the divisiveness of the times, the absence today of a powerful and influential voice for the voiceless.
King was much more than a civil rights advocate and the times we face now, with gaping economic disparity and class distinctions, call out for the ideas behind words King wrote more than 30 years ago.
Following are portions of an essay King wrote in 1958 entitled “The Dimensions of a Complete Life,” one essay in the book “The Measure of a Man” which provides insight into the philosophical and faith-based underpinnings of King’s work.
The book, a mere 60 pages, was given to me by my father, who was before his time in advocating for civil and social justice while writing for the newspaper at which he spent much of his career.
I have treasured it for sentimental reasons, and look back at the words for reasons not easily captured in words.
King wrote, “Many, many centuries ago, out on a lonely, obscure island called Patmos, a man by the name of John caught a vision of the new Jerusalem descending out of heaven from God. One of the greatest glories of this new city of God that John saw was its completeness. It was not partial and one-sided, but it was complete in all three of its dimensions. And so, in describing the city in the twenty-first chapter of the book of Revelation, John says this: 'The length and the breadth and the height of it are equal.’ In other words, this new city of God, this city of ideal humanity, is not an unbalanced entity but it is complete on all sides.
“Now John is saying something quite significant here … What John is really saying is this: that life as it should be and life at its best is the life that is complete on all sides.
“There are three dimensions of any complete life to which we can fitly give the words of this text: length, breadth and height. The length of life as we shall think of it here is not its duration or its longevity, but it is the push of a life forward to achieve its personal ends and ambitions. It is the inward concern for one’s own welfare. The breadth of life is the outward concern for the welfare of others. The height of life is the upward reach for God.
“These are the three dimensions of life, and without the three being correlated, working harmoniously together, life is incomplete …
“Now let us notice first the length of life … Some years ago a learned rabbi, the late Joshua Liebman, wrote a book entitled Peace of Mind. He has a chapter in the book entitled ‘Love Thyself Properly.’ In this chapter he says in substance that it is impossible to love other selves adequately unless you love your own self properly … So every individual has a responsibility to be concerned about himself enough to discover what he is made for. After he discovers his calling he should set out to do it with all the strength and power of his being … No matter how small one thinks his life’s work is in terms of the norms of the world and the so-called big jobs, he must realize that it has cosmic significance if he is serving humanity and doing the will of God.
“To carry this to one extreme, if it falls your lot to be a street-sweeper, sweep streets as Raphael painted pictures, as Michelangelo carved marble, as Beethoven composed music, as Shakespeare wrote poetry … In the words of Douglas Mallock: 'If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail; If you can’t be the sun, be a star; For it isn’t the size that you win or you fail – Be the best of whatever you are.'
“But don’t stop here; it is dangerous to stop here …
“The breadth of life is that dimension of life in which we are concerned about others. An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to broader concerns of all humanity.
“So often racial groups are concerned about the length of life, their economic privileged position, their social status. So often nations of the world are concerned about the length of life, perpetuating their nationalistic concerns and their economic ends. May it not be that the problem in the world today is that individuals as well as nations have been overly concerned with the length of life, devoid of the breadth? …
“As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich, even if I have a billion dollars. As long as diseases are rampant and millions of people in this world cannot expect to live more than twenty-eight or thirty years, I can never be totally healthy even if I just got a good checkup at the Mayo Clinic. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be … No individual or nation can stand out boasting of being independent. We are interdependent … When we discover this, we master the second dimension of life.
“Finally, there is the third dimension. Some people never get beyond the first two dimensions of life. They master the first two. They develop their inner powers; they love humanity, but they stop right there … They seek to live life without a sky.
“But if we are to live the complete life we must reach up and discover God. H.G. Wells was right: ‘The man who is not religious begins at nowhere and ends at nothing.’ … In a real sense everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see. Plato was right: ‘The visible is a shadow cast by the invisible.’
“Love yourself, if that means rational, healthy and moral self-interest. You are commanded to do that. That is the length of life. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. You are commanded to do that. That is the breadth of life. But never forget that there is a first and even greater commandment, ‘Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and all thy soul and all thy mind.’ This is the height of life. And when you do this you live the complete life.”