I heard on the radio that Martin Luther King, Jr. was 39 years old when he was killed. Always seemed to me that he was older. Maybe because it’s taken me so long to get my own life sorted out that I couldn’t imagine having accomplished so much before the age of 50.
That one man (with a lot of support) could instigate, build, and sustain such a movement by the age I am now… Got me thinking pretty hard about what I had done with my life.
When I look back, I see someone reluctant to grow up, someone mired in a gloom of things gone bad, someone determined to self-sabotage at each new opportunity. Seems like a kind of madness to me now. So why?
Because I was a cynical bastard. By my early teens, I knew the world was shit, and every anonymous face I saw had made it that way. Misanthropy gave me serrated edges, which I honed every solitary night.
In my twenties, I wasn’t so much falling asleep as passing out. Booze was the valve, and my journals the sink for ugly thoughts, righteous indignation, and pestilent platitudes. (I’ll make them public someday. They’re a hoot.)
But then, I suddenly felt a burning intolerance for the way I was living. Maybe it was the inventory I took of my life as I sat alone on my twenty-eighth birthday. Maybe it was the motorcycle accident a few weeks earlier that proved I wanted to live, after all. Pretty sure it wasn’t the bourbon.
Do I backslide? Oh, sure. Every time I see a documentary about our farming practices, I switch off and yearn for painful tumors to start growing in the head of Monsanto’s CEO. Every time I read a story about the real damages done by Wall Street, I become sympathetic to the idea of crucifixion. Cynicism is second nature to me, and it’s like an old friend, sometimes. I can always count on it to be there, familiar and comfortable as old socks. But it’s so negative and self-defeating, nothing good will ever come from it.
At heart, cynicism is cowardice. It’s capitulation. Giving up. Letting the wrong people win without a fight. And the more cynical we become, the more dead and useless we become. If all we’re going to do is scowl and curse at those who are polluting our world with noise and smoke, we might as well get on the melting ice floes and make some room.
And this brings me, at last, to my point. There will always be those who will try to take what they can get away with. So long as greed exists, there will be those soulless voids who serve it at the expense of all others. There will be those who try to subjugate, intimidate, rape, kill, and torture. These people absolutely depend upon a population disinterested or distracted enough to let it happen. They rely on us to stay cynical, believing this world does not belong to us, and that it’s just how things are.
It’s hard to imagine what Dr. King faced as a leader of the African-American Civil Rights Movement in the 60s. It’s even harder to imagine someone with greater cause to be cynical. There must’ve been many nights when the doubts were crushing, that real change would not last, if it came at all. The risk to self, family, and friends for an uncertain goal…most would have left it, I think.
Risking all to erase division, to unite as one people…that is greatness. It’s inspiring when you see it. Not the false, jingoistic versions Hollywood loves to sling out, but the total commitment to an ideal that uplifts all people, even if it means not seeing it realized in your lifetime.
I’m shamed when I recall my years of sullen apathy. I’ve wasted time, which is the greatest sin any of us can commit. But I’m not dead yet. And there’s plenty to do in the meantime.
What does MLK Day mean to you?