Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day here in America and it happens to fall, this year, on the actual birthday of that great man. It’s worth taking a minute today to consider one particularly brilliant and inspiring part from his approach to civil rights. What Martin Luther King didn’t do in the 1950s and 1960s was simply point how how hypocritical and flawed the United States was, he didn’t use his immense skills as an orator to paint a depressing, bleak picture of the racial state of affairs. On the contrary, what MLK did was work hard to capture the true essence of what America was supposed to be, he picked up all the central beliefs of the Founding Fathers—justice, freedom, equality—and then said: We can live up to this. We can do this together. We are capable of better.
Of course, America did not hear this message immediately, in fact, huge swaths of the population did not want to hear it at all. So King and his followers showed them. They took to the streets and through the new medium of television made it undeniable just how far short America had fallen from its ideals, how disgusting and disturbing segregation and racism were. Faced with this appalling spectacle, the country worked, little by little, to reach for the higher standard he set for us. To fulfill the vision of what the country was intended to be.
It should be said that the Stoics follow a similar tact. Unlike some philosophies and religions which use their logic and intellect to make life seem meaningless and small, the Stoics sought to inspire the individual to reach their full human potential. Sure, they would point out discrepancies and failures but only to make a larger point—to be able to say: Look at you. You’re better than this. You can do more. You need to do more. In Marcus Aurelius’s writing, we find a man who in his private moments sought to say to himself: You studied this philosophy your whole life, and now you’re in a position of power. Live up to it.Make good on your promises. Be what your father(s) hoped for you to be.
Of course, this is not easy to do. We will fall short along the way. We will fall embarrassingly and shamefully fall short. In the case of civil rights, it took hundreds of years for the full version of the equality laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution to be made true. We’re still falling short today. Just as we, on an individual level, will fall short of our potential and our ideals.
Why is that? Well, it’s because we are human. Because the standards are lofty and challenging. And because what Martin Luther King Jr said is true:
“There is something of a civil war going on within all of our lives. There is a recalcitrant South of our soul revolting against the North of our soul. And there is this continual struggle within the very structure of every individual life.”
But we have to keep trying. We can honor his memory and our own potential today by making headway in that battle. And then get up and do the same tomorrow.
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