As the first snow of the new year dusts the lawns of our quiet suburb, I am reminded how fortunate we are to live in the here and now. Like the majority of businesses and schools, I am off in commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. For some, it may mean nothing more than a long weekend, but to many others, it is an opportunity to honor not just a man who had a tremendous impact on our nation, but an invitation to carry on the vision he proposed to future generations.
King has been labeled everything from a sinner to a saint. Like all humans, he was fallible. His successes were wrapped in failures, and vice versa. We do not hold him up because he was perfect; we do so because he held strong and steadfast to his convictions for a better world. He was on a singular mission that still resonates across time and nationality. It was a path towards peace, justice, and equality for all men and women. He was a steward and spokesman of this undertaking, and knew full well that his work would never be done.
This journey continues on to this day, and will do so indefinitely, for life will always present us challenges to overcome. Gains have been made in this struggle for basic human and civil rights, but they have come at a great cost. Those advances have also suffered great setbacks, and, as Americans, we are far from reconciling and rectifying those wrongs done to our fellow brothers and sisters.
Discrimination still abounds in every corner of our society, whether based on race, gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or disability. Women still only earn 77 cents for every dollar that a man makes. People of color are still incarcerated at disproportionate rates to whites. State institutions are still trying to deny individuals the right to marry whom they love. Political figures are calling for bans targeting specific religious groups. Fear, hatred, and ignorance are not things of the past, and we still have many miles to go before we can claim victory over any of them.
Among our liberties, guaranteed by the first amendment, is the freedom of speech. This fundamental right is one of the reasons we can be grateful for our constitution. In essence, it allows anyone to express their beliefs, however extreme, without fear of repercussions by the government. That said, we should not lose sight that anyone’s personal opinions and judgments are just that – personal. They are not sacred. They are not fact. They are just thoughts and ideas. They come, and they go, and, like the seasons, they change. If someone proclaims to have all the answers or own the truth, run for the hills. Truth can only exist beyond words. Words only point to the thing; they are not the thing itself. Truth is something more profound than any one individual or group can profess to possess.
King understood, as did Mandela and Gandhi, and as far back as Jesus and Buddha, that love, kindness, acceptance, understanding, and forgiveness are the keys. The etymology of the word compassion comes from the Latin: ‘com’ (together) and ‘pati’ (to suffer). To have and express compassion for another literally means you are ‘suffering with’ them. You help another endure their burden and sorrow, because their suffering is your own suffering. We are all in this together.
King once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” On a day like today, as every day, it is important to celebrate and embrace our humanity. It is our only chance for survival. We must act together as one if we have any hope of making King’s dream a reality.