“O world invisible, we view thee,O world intangible, we touch thee,O world unknowable, we know thee,Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!”
Focusing on What Really Matters
In an ethics course, I frequently asked my students, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’ ‘What really matters to you?’ After the questions, there would be a brief moment of silence, followed by the lecture for the day. I use those brief periods as a teaching device, an occasion for the students’ introspection, getting them to reflect on their lives.
Of course, I cannot answer the questions — “What do you want to do with your life?” “What really matters to you?” — for my students. By now, each student knows that only he or she is responsible for answering such questions. However, I meant for the questions to be thought-provoking, motivating my students to pursue concrete, worthwhile goals, to direct their lives in meaningful paths. Since the course I am teaching is about “the good life, a life well- lived,” I want each student in the class, in his or her own way, to have a good life; one that is filled with meaning and purpose.
The Difficulties in Pursuing Worthwhile Goals
Toward the end of the course, I discuss the lives of Elie Wiesel, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Viktor Frankl and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; all of whom encountered seemingly insurmountable obstacles, even tragedies, in the pursuit of a good life. However, ultimately, none of them lost sight on what really mattered to him or her. Each was uncompromisingly single-minded and, thus, firmly determined to make something meaningful out of his or her life by “standing up” for a worthwhile cause.
What is my main point? Precisely this: If you are pursuing a worthwhile goal, then know and take this to heart: There will be obstacles in your way of achieving it. Those obstacles may be by well-meaning or, perhaps, negative people, attempting to sway you from focusing on your goal. So here are two principles for pursuing a meaningful goal. First, in your heart, you must believe, and even feel, that what you are doing is right. Without that passion, you cannot move forward meaningfully with your life.
Staying Focused in the Midst of the Difficulties
Second, you must single-mindedly pursue the good, despite all the adversities you are encountering. To paraphrase Friedrich Nietzsche: To have a why to live for is to endure almost any how. The why is your aim, purpose or goal and your motivation to pursue it. The how is the obstacle that stands in the way of achieving the goal.
Keep on Hoping
Of course, like most meaningful achievements, what I am saying is easier said than done, requiring many set-backs and even long periods of discouragement. That is why I take to heart — and I hope you will — the advice of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was arrested for criticizing Communism in the former Soviet Union and sentenced to eight years of imprisonment in the Soviet concentration camps:
“All that the downtrodden can do is go on hoping. After every disappointment, they must find fresh reason for hope.”
Keep on hoping, aiming at the worthwhile goals you set for yourself! Keep on moving forward, going after them, even if you might seem to be moving backward! That requires the mental and moral courage to pursue your dreams, which is unlike those timid souls who fear that their dreams are too difficult to achieve and give up on pursuing them.
Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, Vol. 3: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, Parts V – VII, trans Harry Willetts (New York, N.Y.: Harper and Row Publishers, Inc., 1978), p. 298.
You can’t “make” people happy, no matter how hard you try. Even if you gave them everything they wanted, they would still have something about which to complain. They may go from one “love”-relationship to another; you may buy them one house after another; and they still will not be satisfied. Buy them roses or diamonds or Jaguars, and such people will, for a while, be comfortable, but they will not be happy.
All the things I have mentioned are external to human beings. Not only will trying to “make” people happy “wear you out,” frustrating you “to no end,” but such attempts are “exercises in futility.” Nothing is really gained from them, except, perhaps, proving that you cannot make other people happy.
Therefore, you are not responsible for making other people happy, because “happiness is an inside job.” You will never, ever be able to make people happy! Happiness is something they must discover for themselves. They must do something about their unhappiness, in order to become happy. And they start that by taking a look inside their lives, within themselves, especially caring about the condition of their souls and their relationship with God.
The “key” to happiness, then, is not outside you. Rather, it is inside you, waiting to be discovered!
Not a few times, I have been told by my White “brothers” and “sisters,” “What are you doing quoting Martin Luther King, Jr.; he was Black?” I have also have been told, not a few times, by my Black “brothers” and “sisters,” “Why are you quoting King; you are White?” Yes, King was Black; yes, too, I am White. Of course, not all Whites and Blacks are my literal, biological brothers and sisters. But in another sense, they are my “brothers and “sisters,” because we all share in a common human nature, in a common humanity; we all are human beings. We all have human blood, albeit different kinds of blood types, flowing through our human bodies. But the truth itself, whether it comes from a Black or White person, has no color.
I “run” into the same mentality in being a Christian pastor or minister. I have been told, not a few times, by my Christian brothers and sisters, “What are you doing quoting Viktor Frankl; he was not a Christian?” Similarly, “Why do you quote Mahatma Gandhi; he was a Hindu?” Again, “Why do you quote Malcolm X; you are not a Black Muslim?” Still again, after I preached a sermon on “Amos: The Prophet of Social Justice,” I was told, “You sound like a liberal.”
I believe that philosopher Arthur Holmes was right, when, in his book All Truth is God’s Truth, he wrote,
“All truth, no matter where it be found or by whom it be discovered, is still God’s truth.”
Why, then, do I quote authors from different races, skin-colors and religions? I believe, first or foremost, in the truth of what they are writing or saying. That truth is a reflection of God’s nature, for God is Truth. Therefore, for me, truth matters, whether it comes from a White woman or Black woman; a Christian, Jew, Muslim or an atheist. In other words, I am more concerned about what is right than what is White. I want to know what is true, even if it is not new.
On 8 March 1964, Malcolm X decided to leave the Nation of Islam. In May of that same year, Malcolm traveled to West Africa, making a pilgrimage to Mecca, the holy city of Muslims. On 28 June, Malcolm founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity, giving a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights, Manhattan. Especially noteworthy in his speech is his affirmation of the rights of African-Americans to be recognized and treated as human beings, saying,
“We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.”1
Malcolm was and still is correct: African-Americans have the fundamental human right to be treated as human beings or human persons (along with all other humans beings, regardless their race or skin-color). Malcolm eloquently and forcefully affirms that right! Elsewhere, Malcolm emphasizes the same point, stating his reason for forming the Organization of Afro-American Unity:
“So we have formed an organization known as the Organization of Afro-American Unity which has the same aim and objective – to fight whoever gets in our way, to bring about the complete independence of people of African descent here in the Western Hemisphere, and first here in the United States, and bring about the freedom of these people by any means necessary.”2
He stresses his point still again, saying,
“That’s our motto. We want freedom by any means necessary. We want justice by any means necessary. We want equality by any means necessary.”3
On moral grounds, though, one may challenge Malcolm’s phrase “by any means necessary.” The reason is he teaches that the end, which is the recognition of the human right of African-Americans to be treated as human persons, justifies the means. But “by any means necessary?” Malcolm’s moral argument is that as long as the end or result is good, use “any means” to achieve it.
However, what if the “means” or the moral acts themselves are wrong? What about destroying private property, which is human right, to achieve that end? What about looting or stealing someone else’s possessions, another human right, to achieve that end? What about directly killing other human beings – that is still another human right, an innocent human being’s right to life — to achieve that end? What about destroying American cities to achieve that end? What about killing, say, bystanders, such as innocent women and children, to achieve that end?
Paying back evil for evil is still evil and, therefore, it is not right. Hating those who hate is still hating and, as such, it is wrong. Harming those who inflict harm is still harming; thus, it is wrong. To kill a killer is still killing. It is an “eye for an eye,” which still removes an eye, making both moral acts wrong and, therefore, both persons morally “blind.”
While African-Americans have every right to be angry at police brutality and the murdering of Black American citizens, that anger must be properly channeled in non-violent, peaceful, public protests. That is Dr. King’s point in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail.4
For King, there are two radically different kinds of public protests. The first results from repressed anger, leading to the destruction of property and human lives, resulting in a chaotic or disordered society. The second, while issuing from repressed anger, is creatively channeled by a disciplined, conscious decision to act out of love, choosing to protest peacefully, calling attention to the injustices suffered by Black Americans.5
Non-violence, according to King, is not non-resistance. African-Americans must resist the brutality and the “targeting” of Black citizens by police. But how is that resistance to be applied in public? Contrary to Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. teaches that non-violence in public protests “demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.”6 Again, he writes, “it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends.”7
The “power” of Dr. King’s doctrine of public, non-violent, peaceful protests is that it works! It can be applied to “the real world” in which people live; and it was, ultimately resulting in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. King changed American history for the better and he did it without hurting anyone. He never resorted to firing a gun. He neither destroyed anything nor killed anyone to bring about his doctrine of constructive, social change.
Malcolm X and Dr. King agree on the end or aim of public protests for the advancement of civil rights. Sometimes, however, the two leaders disagree over the means of achieving those rights. For King, the means of public protest must be right in order to achieve the right end, say, the elimination of police brutality and killings of Black Americans or African-Americans.
1. Malcolm X. 28 June 1964. Speech at the Founding Rally of the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Black Past. [Web:] https://www.blackpast.org/…/1964-malcolm-x-s-speech…/ [Date of access: 25 April 2021].
4. Martin Luther King, Jr. 16 April 1963. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” African Studies Center – University of Pennsylvania. [Web:] https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Artic…/Letter_Birmingham.html [Date of access: 25 April 2021].
6. Ibid. Italics are mine.