I remember the shock of seeing Martin Luther King Jr’s tomb for the first time.
I had just emerged from the King Center on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta not too far from where he once lived and preached. Inside oozed with honey and warmth. A silhouetted history of Dr. King rippled from the rafters. The collection included his Nobel Peace Prize, his Memphis room key and his toothbrush. The singular and the ordinary. A haven for thoughts of what can be done together when adversity calls.
Outside was different. Almost austere. His tomb, which was made of cool, white marble, rested in splendid isolation in the middle of a reflecting pool. I shivered at the distance between him and all that was so dear to him – family, friends, fellow travellers and supporters.
Nowadays I meet young visionaries who are struggling to make sense of a similar distance that is developing between them and their colleagues. It’s not the way they expected it to be when they started out together. It is heartbreaking to witness.
They can’t understand why members of their tribe are looking at them differently. Treating them differently. “Nothing has changed,” they say. But it has. As we know from Dr. King’s life, visionaries are blessed, or cursed, with seeing what is beyond the next mountain. And the one after that. They can’t rest. They won’t rest.
But others will or must. They don’t have the same stamina. Or capacity to handle ambiguity and risk. They’ve had enough of exploration. They want to rest, to consolidate. Their priorities have changed.
The distance that grows between people in these circumstances is often inadvertent. Yes, colleagues may slip away. But visionaries also leave people behind when they dedicate their energy to imagining into existence a more peaceful and just world. Sadly this commitment can come at great personal expense. Unless they cultivate seeds of love not just for humanity but also for those closest to them.
Another King Holiday is upon us. (Monday, January 16th.)
It’s a timely reminder to look at the visionaries in our midst with softer eyes.
And to rejoice that Dr. King is not really alone. With his wife Coretta beside him, the love that beams their way warms the bleakest of outlooks.
NOTE: My understanding of the cultural impact of Martin Luther King Jr. has benefitted from the writing of Taylor Branch particularly, At Canaan’s Edge – America in the King Years 1965-68, a period of upheaval and transition.
I pray that a loving memory exists for them too
The precious ones I overthrew
For an education in the world. (Leonard Cohen, “Days of Kindness”)