In this moment I am conflicted about sharing my annual written reflections on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., his legacy, and its applicability to living a more meaningful and moral life today. The violence worldwide (particularly the ongoing and overwhelming scale of killing of Palestinian civilians), the tenuous state of democracy both abroad and at home, and the inadequately-addressed degradation of the environment at once underscore the need to demand compassion and sense and underscore my own reticence to use this holiday as an awkward launchpad for such pleas or to claim the wisdom or moral authority to frame any of this neatly.
As such I’ll split the difference and share a recent experience and corresponding line of thinking for anyone interested in such things.
Last week Kate and I traveled from CT to to Austin, TX to visit our daughter and for me to record some keyboard parts for her band’s new album. Due to a storm in the northeast over the weekend we pushed the whole trip back by a day and were feeling pretty good about that decision – after all, if we’re talking about January, it’s on this end and not the Texas end that travel snafus are likely, right?
Some time after the expected time of the flight’s already-well-past-our-bedtime scheduled arrival, the pilot announced that due to heavy winds we would be postponing the landing. That turned into re-routing to Dallas to refuel, and after several more hours on the plane, the subsequent announcement that the flight would be cancelled, well past the point where it would have been feasible to get a hotel, much less a rental car with which to drive through the night to get to Austin before sunrise. We were fortunate to get a flight for the following morning, but that meant a night in the Dallas Love Field airport, which on our arrival was already strewn with attempting-to-sleep people on cots, chairs, and relatively-unoccupied patches of floor.
We staggered around for a while, wondering if attempting to sleep was even worthwhile given the lack of obvious places to do so, the extremely bright lights, and the loud ‘80s music (I dig Paul Carrack and Lionel Richie as much as the next guy, but at 2am in an airport, it seemed a bit puzzling that the music was at a volume level comparable to that of a dance club). Around 3 we found a patch of real estate (also near a TV blasting not-particularly-relaxing 24 hour news) where we could lie down on the ground. I dozed on and off for maybe 20 minutes before the music made its transition to the ‘90s and Hanson was screaming “MMMBop” in my head, mocking the ineffectuality of my earplugs. So we gave up and wandered around some more, eventually watched a dumb movie, and finally made it to Austin, where we managed to catch a nap for an hour before heading into the recording studio.
And yet I felt shockingly good the rest of that subsequent day. There are a few possible reasons for that, but I find myself coming back to two of them:
1 ) Kate and I were hyper-aware of the privilege we carried. I certainly would not have chosen (and don’t wish to repeat) that particular sort of travel experience. I also had every reason to believe that it was a finite and survivable experience and therefore that one night of endurance and some subsequent days of greater-than-typical fatigue would represent the totality of our suffering. We are not unhoused, much less attempting to sleep amidst the bombed-out rubble of what was once our neighborhood, as so many are right now. We didn’t have young children to comfort through the ordeal, as others there did. We weren’t stranded en route to cancer treatments in Houston, as was the case for multiple folks in the customer service line in which I waited for some time.
2 ) People were kind. The cynic in me was rather surprised by this. Given the collective exhaustion and inconvenience, I would have predicted a series of meltdowns, harsh words towards hapless flight attendants, jostling for position on the cots, and so on. The way it seemed (and based on the various conversations I had with “strangers” along the way), everyone simply recognized this to be a blameless scenario and one in which everyone there was in a similar boat. In this moment when I was exhausted and nervous, it was deep and nourishing to perceive kindness and shared humanity underscoring the experience.
If it weren’t for #1 maybe I wouldn’t have had the perspective or wherewithal to notice #2. And it is perhaps sad that #2 was surprising, but it sure got me thinking (with whatever functional neurons remained at that point) about what capacities humans have and which of those we are predisposed to notice. Particularly in this moment in human history, if I were looking for evidence that humans are terrible beyond redemption, I could find plenty. Likewise, I’m hesitant to go down the “glass half full” road to a degree that turns me into a naïve Pollyanna, seeing the good for fear of an inability to cope with the harsh but intractable realities of existence.
And this is what brings me back around to Dr. King. In my years of studying his work (particularly during the period of research, contemplation, and composition leading to the recording of my “Soul Force” album twenty years ago) one thing that has always struck me has been his unflinching hope for humanity. He was certainly not oblivious to the horrible acts perpetuated by people with hate-filled hearts and brainwashed minds nor to the urgency of fighting against those acts and the attitudes and policies that enabled and perpetuated them. And yet this belief in people’s innate capacity to be good fueled so much of his work. Good (a word I choose deliberately, as bland as it may appear in some contexts) may not be enough to guarantee our salvation (either in the sense of the human race or in the cases of individuals or movements whose morality is already past the point of no return). But it’s at least a start and a basis for imbuing the tireless work for justice with the love Dr. King embodied so potently.
May we all remember Dr. King’s legacy every day and may we work collectively towards a plane of existence whereby, a year from now, hope for humanity feels like a more self-evidently logical perception.