January 2004

“You got chocolate in my peanut butter….” Two great tastes that taste great together: click here.

Monday on NPR, sickness Clayborne Carson talked about the King papers project he directs here at Stanford. During part of the interview, here he played Martin Luther King, Jr. talking to a radio reporter following an arrest. The reporter asked him if he wanted to be a martyr. King responded that he had no interest in being a martyr, that he did not enjoy suffering, but that racism was the greatest moral challenge to the spirit of America, that he was confident it had to and would be conquered, and that there would be suffering as part of that struggle. He did not ask not to suffer, but for the strength to bear the suffering well.

I point this out to criticize a view that many of my friends appear seduced by; the idea that desire and attachment lead to suffering, and that a valid spiritual goal, a good way to spend one’s time and energy, is trying to reduce desire, to accept how things are, or will be, and thus do away with one’s own suffering. A corollary to this view is that suffering is not caused by poverty, sickness, injustice, but by the fervent wish for no poverty, no sickness, no injustice.

This view is clearly the prerogative of the rich, the healthy and the powerful. They want to spend their time and their money in yoga classes and meditating at gourmet vegan resorts. They want to “live in the moment” and be content. But meanwhile, people are dying, suffering, aching. Its not our brains that make us hurt, its circumstance, history. And to ignore history, to pretend that these people would be happier if they just thought differently, were more enlightened, to think that we then could be happier, content, if we just stopped caring so deeply that things should be better… well I can think of nothing more lazy or immoral than that.

Think of the people who have done the most amazing things to better the lot of their fellow humans, the Martin Luther Kings, the Dr. Paul Farmers. Were these people “unattached” to outcomes, did they shun desire of a better world, avoid suffering in the pursuit of, or even demand for, a better world? Absolutely not. Mere contentedness is for those who can not handle both horror and joy.

A better exposition of the nature of acceptance, love and contentment is this weeks’ “Islands in the Clickstream” by my dear friend Richard Thieme. Its too brilliant and lovely to be excerpted, one must read Richard’s ideas for themselves.

My point is not that there is no happiness where injustice, sickness or poverty exist. Humans are resilient and adaptive. We can be happy under the most difficult of circumstances. That is not a reason to acclimate oneself to the persistence of bad circumstances, but a reason to fight all the harder to remove those burdens from the backs of our fellows. “> 

I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history.

I refuse to accept the idea that the “is-ness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “ought-ness” that forever confronts him.

I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, price unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him.

Martin Luther King, Jr., accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, December 10, 1964