As I like to do from time to time, I just indulged my longing for inspiration by re-reading Dr. Martin Luther King’s brilliant Letter From a Birmingham Jail, and watching the I’ve Been to the Mountaintop speech, which he gave the day before being assassinated. My heart is aflame with the greatness that spilled forth from his fingers and his vocal chords, and my mind has been set free upon the vast web of justice that weaves its way through the crowd of injustice and indifference that fills the hallways and stairways of history. And as my mind takes that circuitous and precipitous journey I am inclined to ponder the powerful and untapped potential of language, the way in which audacious metaphors, wild, jagged, irreverent intonations and history-laden gesticulations can cut through suffering, can alter the current that carries with it the status quo.
I disdain the trepidation with which most speak, the reluctance to invoke gods, myths, great men and women, poems, stories, hymns and legends. I cannot tolerate the assertion that poverty and pollution are inevitable or unsolvable. I laugh at the thought that idealism is only for the young. I want to shout with the loudspeakers of my lungs that anything is possible, that a dogged, unwavering passion for Truth and Justice can overcome a tsunami of hatred or ignorance. I weep at the words “I can’t,” and feel bliss when I hear the phrase “I have an idea. . .”
What MLK–and all the great men and women of the past and present–show us, is that “the spirit of an individual can supersede the entire clockwork of history.” A passion that travels faster than the speed of light and fills the entire universe with the Heisenberg vibration of atoms ruptures the cells of my veins and causes ecstasy to spill through my body. That passion ought to send individuals forth into the world with more momentum than a freight train, barreling through the walls of “what is” and arriving at the destination of “what is possible.” The journey between the two is the real subject of all religion and mythology, the real purpose of existence.
It strikes me as incomprehensibly fascinating that Henry David Thoreau’s essay On The Duty of Civil Disobedience, written in the Northeastern United States, later inspired Mahatma Gandhi’s civil disobedience in South Africa and India. Still more fascinating is the fact that Gandhi, when he was a young man living in South Africa and experimenting with life on a commune, exchanged several letters with the then very old Leo Tolstoy, who had become increasingly religious–practicing what he called “primitive Christianity”–and who had also been living on a commune of his own. Finally, I am amazed that both Thoreau and Gandhi later influenced Martin Luther King and countless other leaders who pushed humanity closer to the doors that lead to freedom.
From this chain of causation and influence I conclude that it is our sacred duty to sing the notes of our inner being as loudly, as brazenly and as consistently as possible. I refer not to the petty, the humorous, the temporary–though those have their place, to be sure–but rather to that which is rooted not in our eyes but in our gaze, not in our brains but our minds. After all, according to Thoreau, “to affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man [and woman] is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.”
In this tremendous time of technological innovation, astounding wealth and egregious poverty, obesity and famine, opulence and drudgery, what better art to practice than to affect the quality of day with blogs, twitter posts, google searches, protests, market-based solutions, divestment campaigns, just investments, small actions and big ideas? Never before have the trailbrazers of justice been armed with so many tools; never before has the sharing of ideas and the acquisition of information been more easy.
What we cannot afford to do is to become a reticent and complacent generation, afraid that the time of great speeches and great actions is over. Barack Obama became President of the United States because he understood very intimately the importance of reaching people by reaching back into the past and reaching forward into the future. Let us then do as Walt Whitman did:
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
And when we sound our yawp, let it be filled with passion, wisdom, knowledge, and lust for the beauty and possibility of the world. Let it be filled with poetry, with mythology, with fearlessness, with humanity and with divinity. Let us look back to the past with an eye to the future, all while working tirelessly, ceaselessly to create a more free, fair and prosperous planet. As MLK wrote, “an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” That we do not feel threatened is a testament to our inattentiveness, and the need for us to Dream Forcefully, Speak Loudly and Act Boldly.
Full Text of Letter From a Birmingham Jail
How Access to Information Can Tackle Poverty and Pollution
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