“Time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to work to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.” –Martin Luther King Jr., Why We Can’t Wait
All week long I have been ruminating on the life of Martin Luther King. Well, I suppose it is more like 30 years that I have been ruminating on him. Ever since that day I walked into the library of my high school bent on satisfying the intense curiosity I felt about this man, a fascination that none of my teachers and textbooks had quenched. I read and read, and as I did, the feeling grew that I had found my soulmate across the ages. We were connected somehow, like cosmic brothers. Timelessly so.
My hero was murdered 50 years ago.
FIFTY YEARS!!! That feels like an eternity to me! But even for someone as resonant and consistently present in my life as Dr. King has been, “his time” still feels so long ago and so much before mine. In so many ways, I cannot believe it was only 50 years ago that he died!
I think of all those images in still photographs and grainy video. The fire hoses and dogs, the lunch counters and sidewalk beatings, the policemen’s billy-clubs, the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma, the many sermons in churches across the South, and the Lincoln Memorial and National Mall for the “I Have A Dream” speech. I always see the Civil Rights Movement in black-and-white. Some time long before me, just like the Great Depression and World War II and Charlie Chaplin. Ancient history.
But the truth is that Dr. King was right before me, and his time bumped right up to my time. He was murdered in April of 1968. My sister was born the very next month. My goodness, I have never realized that! It shocks me now that I do. Even though I can see the dates in my head and I understand it to be true, somehow my mind just won’t absorb the concept.
I nearly shared an era with Martin Luther King.
I am so stricken by that realization just now. In my mind, it was such a stretch to connect us, at least from a practical standpoint; I felt him in my heart, of course, but he was always a character from such a completely different time, as much as my other major influences: Gandhi, Buddha, Henry Thoreau, and Jesus of Nazareth. Fifty years could have just as well have been 500! It always seemed so far before me.
Everything about the 1960s has felt that way for me: Woodstock, JFK, the moon landing, even Vietnam, which went into the 70s. I see now that everything before me feels like ancient history.
And just the concept of FIFTY YEARS seems like forever. It’s so big!
I guess that I fail to realize that I am 45 years old. That is nearly half a century itself. Maybe the fact that I cannot imagine myself as being 50 sheds some light on why I see Martin Luther King as nowhere near my time.
I think this type of view changes with age. At least it has for me. I know that I have made an effort in my adult years to expand my range on this, to make more real the idea that 100 years and 200 years and things like slavery, the extermination of the Native Americans, Abraham Lincoln, Adolf Hitler, and the right of women to vote, that none of that was actually very long ago. I have done it intentionally so that I can keep my empathy and be on the alert for narrow-mindedness and entitlement. It is a process that I have mixed results with, occasionally grasping the close proximity of these events to me, but usually not. I take a lot for granted.
The fluctuating nature of my grasp on this concept of Time seems directly proportional to the level of wisdom that I operate with from day to day. When I am clear how near all of this stuff is to today–a blink of an eye, historically–then I am more aware of how important it is for me to use my voice and my life for good and to speak up immediately and passionately against ignorance and injustice, as those things can quickly gain a foothold and wreak havoc on a generation of unsuspecting souls.
I feel like I owe it to my children and future grandchildren to take the long view and realize just how brief a half-century is, how near we are to the previous one, and how quickly the next one will pass. It pushes me to take ownership of my era, to try to leave a better legacy than my generation seems to be allowing to transpire right under our noses.
I don’t want my future grandchildren to look back at this time–my time–and think, “What fools and cowards those people were in that age! How badly they behaved toward one another and toward the planet! They nearly destroyed everything, and barely anyone spoke up on the side of right. How short-sighted they were. Thanks goodness we know better!” I hope that we can see and confront the error of our ways in the present and leave a better legacy than we are on track to.
Fifty years goes by in a blink. That’s what my mother tells me. We can do a lot of good or a lot of bad in that amount of time. When I think about those black-and-white images from the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. King’s death–and when I remind myself that that was only one blink ago–I understand the kind of seismic shift we can make in the next blink, one way or the other. Dr. King and every other brave person who spoke, marched, and bled for civil rights in the 1960s made all our lives immeasurably better. But our potential for greater things is limitless. There will not come an era when it will be acceptable to say, “Okay, we have done enough to improve the world for ourselves, for humankind, and for our planet.” The time will always, as Dr. King says, “be ripe to do right.”
If you are reading these words, you are in the midst of one of those 50-year blinks. Someone is going to look back in wonder 50 short years from now–it might be you, it might be your grandkids, it might be the History books–at the time in which we are living. They will see the images we daily create: school shootings, climate events, cowardly displays of greed and short-sightedness from our elected leaders, showdowns over nuclear weapons, killings of unarmed Black men by the police, and lots of people taking selfies as the rest of the list goes on in the background? Will they be impressed or aghast at us? Will they find any heroes in their review of our time, anyone like Martin Luther King?
These questions haunt me now in this rare moment of clarity about how quickly time flies by. At least for this moment, before something distracts me and clouds my vision, I want to make a bigger commitment to make this historical blink–our blink–a more positive one. A time for growth and for progress. I want this blink to be characterized by an increase in EMPATHY and a corresponding natural boost in Social Justice and Peace. I want it to be characterized by an awakening in our hearts and minds about the disastrous effects of our actions (and those of our ancestors) on each other and on our planet, and with that awakening a newfound conviction to live bigger and better than we ever have before.
I sincerely hope that with that awakening and conviction come heroes. It would be a shame to be a party to an era that leaves behind no heroes for the next era. It reminds me of the John Mayer lyric from his song “Speak For Me”: You can tell that something isn’t right when all your heroes are in black-and-white. I hope that for the sake of the coming generations, we can leave behind a legacy of moral progress and broadminded vision, and some genuine heroes, too.
Dr. King died 50 years ago this week. Perhaps the more staggering fact is that he was alive for only 39 years. If History blinked, it would have missed him. That’s how fast it goes. But if you do it well, as Dr. King showed us, your blink can shine forever. I want my blink–our blink–to be better. The thought of my hero inspires me to rise up and do my part to make it so.
How about you? Do you realize how quickly your era is passing and the impressions it is leaving in the greater evolutionary journey of our species? Open up your journal and contemplate this infinite topic. What is your sense of the magnitude of 50 years? Does it seem like forever to you–taking you to some foreign territory like a black-and-white film that you can’t make real in your colorful mind–or does it feel like just a little while ago? Do you think this is entirely dependent upon your age–i.e. 50 years seems like nothing for people older than 50 but feels like forever to people younger than 50–or are some people just better at comprehending our tiny spot on the vastness of History’s timeline? As a 45-year old, I grew up with color TV shows but also some after-school re-runs in black-and-white (e.g “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “The Three Stooges”) that I always had trouble connecting with. Do you think the switch from black-and-white to color images in photos, TV, and movies will change what seems “contemporary” to this and future generations, or will our color images seem old and unrelatable to them, too? Are your heroes from your lifetime? Has the past 50 years–the time since Dr. King–produced a proportionate number of heroes to the other historical eras? If not, what is it about our era that is lacking such that we have not produced the kind of people who are worthy of our idolatry over the long haul? It seems reasonable that with social media and the Internet, this era’s potential paragons of virtue would be easily visible and widely accessible to a broad audience, making it seem likely that we would produce an exponentially greater number of heroic figures than previous eras. Are we? What will be the legacy of our era–this blink–when people look back at it 50 years from now? Will it be all of the negative stuff we see on the news everyday–the corruption and cowardice in Washington, the shootings, the climate change–or is there something greater at play that we are missing amidst all of this narrow-mindedness and short-sightedness? Or is that very pettiness and folly going to be our legacy, the thing that sticks out to the writers of the History books? Perhaps. Now switch gears: what would you like the legacy of this era to be? How different is that than where it appears to be heading now? What could we start doing differently to get it going in the direction you want it to go? Is it a reasonable ask, or are your hope and our reality a bridge too far to cross? What can you personally do to make our era more like the one you would like it to be remembered as? Is that something you can begin today? I hope so. Leave me a reply and let me know: What lasting impression will this historical blink of an eye leave upon History?
Be your biggest,
P.S. If today’s letter resonated with you, I hope you will share it on your social media. We need to grow the conversations that make us better. Thank you!
P.S.S. If you haven’t read the Journal of YOU book yet, you can find it on Amazon or any of your other favorite online booksellers. Please leave a review if you have. Thanks!