“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
– The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Every year Dr. King’s Birthday comes around, and every year we have the same talk around the dinner table. My kids don’t feel that in a time when a black man is President there is as much need for Dr. King – the man, the life, the struggle, the values. Every year they want to tell me that this is their day, and they can honor Dr. King by honoring what he has done to make the world what it is, and I have to tell you I am happy for it.
But so much of what I want to tell them is what was not done, can never be, not in one man’s lifetime or in all the lifetime’s of all of us still here on this Earth. The ongoing struggle for a society that is just and decent is eternal.
I do not blame my kids for wanting to take stock of how far we have gotten. This holiday is something like a picnic stop under the shade of a great oak by the side of a long road. As we rest our weary legs for a moment it is only natural to buck up the strength of the next generation by showing them how far we have gotten. “You see that mountain, over there? We crossed that one, long ago.” And under the shade of a great tree we can recount the stories of each milestone along the crooked road that got us to where we are, right now, this moment, this day.
When I think of Dr. King Day as a picnic it seems to come out right. I can smile and tell them the stories without making them fear the weary hours yet to pass on the road ahead.
We celebrate today because we need that strength for tomorrow. The work of Dr. King is never done, not as long as there is fear and hunger and injustice. There are those who twist what Dr. King has said just as they have twisted the words of Jesus, trying to use his life for their own gain. They have their reward, I am sure. The work is constant and unending.
But what we learn from the holiday today is that this work is joyful and fun. These come in two forms, one from the moments that make up the journey itself and one that stops for a while and takes stock of just how far we have gone. Both are good, and both are what life is about. As sure as there is no joy in injustice or hunger, there is a lot of pleasure to be taken in a life based on doing what we can.
Live life on purpose. You can read that several ways, and I mean them all. That’s what I learned from Dr. King.
In the end, I let my kids tell me how much has been accomplished every year on this day because it makes me feel good that they know how far we have gotten. But when the holiday picnic is over and the road beckons us once again, I know my job is to tell them the next milestone to look for. We pack up the basket and head down again tomorrow, full of purpose and hope and a sense of great fun knowing that there really isn’t any other way.
Happy Birthday, Dr. King. I know you’ll understand if we pause just a moment to say that before we get back to the work ahead.