An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.--Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. King was a man of words and his words reveal much that resonates with me. The above quotation is one of my favorites. It expresses what I believe to be at the core of hope for positive change. We are individuals and we are humankind. In the words of John Donne, "the death of any man diminishes me." The Christian Bible states the same concept in terms of being our brother's keeper. Other religions express the same concept of a responsibility to the whole of humanity that transcends individual needs and desires.
Dr. King conditions having a meaningful existence, what he calls "really living," on moving beyond viewing the world only through the lens of individual goals. To really live, we have to move beond a me centered life to a life in which we see ourselves as a part of the whole of humankind. In Tuesdays With Morrie, Morrie conveys a story of two waves rushing towards the shore. One fears crashing against the shoreline and becoming nothing except foam on the sea. The other wave is not afraid, stating, "I'm not just a wave, I'm part of the ocean."
This responsibility to each other is not an easy choice. It means being willing to sacrifice individual wants if such a sacrifice is necessary for the larger good. Many of us resist this path. Much of the opposition against health care reform is couched in terms of individual needs and an attempt to minimize the direness of the need: I don't want to have to pay more taxes; it's not fair that I have to pay for people who won't work to have health care; anybody who wants health care just has to go to an emergency room.
So strong is our love affair with individualism that we continually measure not whether other people need our help but whether they deserve our help. When our elected officials discuss funding for social welfare programs, invariably the discussion turns to the merit of the individuals who need the services of these programs. I confess that I do not understand this obsession with ascertaining if someone is deserving of help prior to providing assistance.
There are those who constantly declare that we are a Christian nation. I think that's a sweeping generalization that fails to take into account the diversity of beliefs in this country. Nonetheless, from what I know of the Bible, at no point does Christ ask of anyone seeking his help, "Do you deserve it?"
Dr. King's words remind us that our obligation to humankind is an absolute, that it is not for us to demand that those in need prove their worth to us in order to merit our concern. On this official celebration of the Dr. King's life and works, I can think of no better way to honor his memory than to embrace our collective responsibility for all of humanity.