Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Complete Life

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“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”
~Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today, the third Monday in January, is Martin Luther King Jr. day in the US.  It is "…the only federal holiday observed as a national day of service – a 'day on, not a day off,'", according to the Corporation for National and Community Service.

A leader of the civil rights movement in the US, he was assassinated in 1968.  Dr. King was most famously known for his speech titled, I have a dream, a speech that moved the nation.  There is a less known work by Dr. King however that I have gone back to, studied, and read over and over again, that moves my personal humanity to action.  It is called, “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life.”  I first found a copy of this speech in a text book from college called, Foundations: Society, Challenge and Change, a compilation of varying essays put together by Editor James V. Rudnick.

I focus on this piece today because, if I am to acknowledge death, I must also acknowledge that my time of living is limited.  That drives me to ask myself what I want my life to be about.  Even more so since my husband died.  Settling for nothing less than seeking what I was created to do, and be, is one of the characteristics that was magnified in me, after the death of my husband.  Dr. King’s life showed the impact one individual can have when they choose nothing less than fully engaging in their life’s purpose.

Image: Jim Damaske/Tampa Bay Times via ZUMA Press.

The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life examines the length, breadth, and height of life.  Dr. King based this sermon on the 21st chapter of the book of Revelations, when the apostle John, who was in captivity, had a vision of the future city of God.

Dr. King observes, “…the new city of God, this city of ideal humanity, is not an unbalanced entity but it is complete on all sides.”

Keith Green, the musician, was only 28 when he died.  Christ, the Messiah was 33.  Martin Luther King Jr. was just shy of 40.  Perhaps I will live to see 100.  Perhaps I won’t.  Whatever the case, I want to make my life count, and losses like these help me focus on the value of the limited time I have in this world.

Dr. King summarizes his interpretation of the three dimensions this way:

“The length of life as we shall think of it here is not its duration or its longevity, but it is the push of a life forward to achieve its personal ends and ambitions.  It is the inward concern for one’s own welfare.  The breadth of life is the outward concern for the welfare of others.  The height of life is the upward reach for God.  These are the three dimensions of life, and without the three being correlated, working harmoniously together, life is incomplete.”

He describes life as a triangle, with the individual on one end, others on another, and God at the top.

Today I am going to focus most on the length of life.  If I look at my past I see that I had put a strong emphasis on the height of life, reaching for God, and then the breadth of life, reaching out to others.  The time I have been granted over the past year has enabled me to focus on the length of life, reaching inward, to discover what I was created for, so I can bring all three dimensions together to best serve humanity, and God, while fulfilling my own life’s purpose.

The following is a section of Dr. King’s sermon that I have highlighted in my book, and revisited many times over the years.

“…every individual has a responsibility to be concerned about himself enough to discover what he is made for.  After he discovers his calling he should set out to do it with all of the strength and power in his being.  He should do it as if God Almighty called him at this particular moment in history to do it.  He should seek to do his job so well that the living, the dead, or the unborn could not do it better.  No matter how small one thinks his life’s work is in terms of the norms of the world and the so-called big jobs, he must realize that it has cosmic significance if he is serving humanity and doing the will of God.

To carry this to one extreme, if it falls your lot to be a street-sweeper, sweep streets as Raphael painted pictures, sweep streets as Michelangelo carved marble, sweep streets as Beethoven composed music, sweep streets as Shakespeare wrote poetry.  Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, 'Here lived a great street-sweeper who swept his job well.'" 

In the words of Douglas Mallock:

If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail:

If you can’t be the sun, be a star.

For it isn’t by size that you win or you fail-

Be the best of whatever you are.

A few years ago, my late-husband Neil and I, went to a conference called True Cities in Hamilton, Ontario.  Neil had significant gifts.  One of them was how incredibly self-aware he was.  One of his greatest adversities was living with mental illness, and the day we visited True Cities I had the honour of witnessing him combine his adversity with his gift, to serve others.

A number of seminars were going on and we had to pick three.  One seminar focused on how to reach out to individuals in the city who were struggling with mental illness.  Neil was often silent about his struggles because he was fearful he would be judged.  That day he sat quietly amoung the participants and listened to them talk.  What he heard was a group of individuals who had a genuine motive to understand the needs of people struggling with mental illness, and a deep desire to connect, and help.  The heart of that group created a safe place.

Then the most beautiful thing happened.  Neil stood up.  “I have a mental illness,” he said, and he began to talk about his experience with it.  He told stories about his fears, and what he found helpful from others while he was experiencing an episode, and also how individuals could help someone like him during everyday life.

To me, what he did that day was a completion of the triangle Dr. King refers to.  His gift was being self-aware, and Neil used that gift in that moment to serve himself, serve others, and honour God.

But safe places are not always present.  Opposition may abound.  The history books confirm this.  Consider how Martin Luther King Jr’s life ended.  His immense love, passion for peace, and dream of harmony, resulted in his assassination. Such was also the case for John Lennon, John F. Kennedy, and of course, the Son of God.

Each of these were visionaries.  Each of these were dreamers.  Is living a complete life that may end so abruptly, worth it?

Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff shepherded the first Martin Luther King Jr day in Jerusalem in 1984.  During the ceremony he quoted a verse from the story of Joseph, in the Bible.  As his brothers watched him coming toward them they said,  “Behold the dreamer comes; let us slay him and throw him into the pit, and see what becomes of his dreams.”

Resnicoff then said, “From time immemorial, there have been those who thought they could kill the dream by slaying the dreamer, but – as the example of Dr. King’s life shows – such people are always wrong.”

Today I remember Martin Luther King Jr and the complete life he led, his dreams that in death live on, and the complete life he has challenged each one of us to capture.  May we dream big, may we serve God, humanity, and ourselves well.  May we seek the life we were created to live so “…all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street-sweeper.”




Shawna is a writer and public speaker.  Email Shawna to invite her to speak at your next event.  Subscribe to my podcast on iTunes, listed under Good Grief Guru.