Thinking of Martin Luther King: Deal with Reality

The inauguration of a minority president coincided with remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., so I seek inspiration from the great spiritual warrior. Our times are at least as perilous as he describes in the preface to his 1963 Strength to Love: “In these turbulent days of uncertainty the evils of war and of economic and racial injustice threaten the very survival of the human race. Indeed, we live in a day of grave crisis.” Given our own grave crisis, I return to a few touchstones—deal with reality, create true community, take wise action. I discuss each in turn

Deal with reality

Following the election season and its outcome, I attend intently to the distinction between fact and fantasy. Much of what passes for information is not. Rather, it is speculation, fear-mongering, awfulizing, opinions, supposition, assertions, and wishful thinking. I realize how much I am invited and choose to live into a future we cannot possibly know. At the same time, I see the boundaries placed around our knowledge and understanding. That is, I see how I seek the information that confirms what I already (think I) know. Social psychologists call this confirmation bias. We all do it. The sheer surprise of the election is proof.

A focus on reality requires discernment and curiosity about what is, in its complexity and seeming inconsistency. I take in news more critically. I look for just a bit more information, meaning, historical threads, and patterns. I focus on investigative reporting. Reality demands attention to what is, including facts, multiple interpretations, frustration or eagerness, disagreement or elation, and the reaction that surprises whether from self or another.

Reality is so much more than what is on the surface. There are deeper patterns and causes to see. In the martial arts, I learned not to watch an opponent’s hands and feet but to watch their core body as the source of their actions. It’s a lesson I call on now—focus not on the head fakes, noise, obfuscation but the action, decisions, policies, and patterns of behavior and impact. Deeper still, there are underlying motivations, histories, brain science, structures of individual and collective consciousness, and the governing rules of social dynamics and democracy. I look for systems underneath events or symptoms.

Systems thinking tells us there are no side effects, just effects. In systems there is no us or them, there is only we, inextricably linked, often through causes and events we may not see or understand. Dealing with reality means understanding there is a system, a set of systems, interacting in a causal chain or network. Results could be incredibly slow or mind-bogglingly fast. Our surprise is proof that we did not understand the system, i.e. reality in its fullness.

It is humbling to consider that our knowing, no matter how broad or deep, is imperfect. So as I deal with reality, I must also deal with uncertainty, with not knowing everything or how things will turn out, not being in control. Rather than live in anticipation of what might happen, or fight what has already happened, reality demands a focus on what is, here and now. Such a focus is challenge enough without complicating or obscuring it.

From Dr. King: “Let us consider, first, the need for a tough mind, characterized by incisive thinking, realistic appraisal, and decisive judgment. The tough mind is sharp and penetrating, breaking through the crust of legends and myths and sifting the true from the false.”

From Byron Katie: “When I argue with what is, I lose but only 100% of the time.”

·         What reality (opinion, other perspective) might you be fighting with?

·         What do you know for certain? How do you know you know?

·         What patterns or deeper structures become visible when you account for longer time horizons? Additional factors or perspectives that seem disconnected?