In 1963, when Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech, the United States was in civil unrest due to the inequality of treatment of a segment of our society. The following Civil Rights Act legalized the equality that our Founding Fathers had spoken of, but maybe didn’t mean or practice (since they were mostly slave owners). Dr. King opened our minds and hearts to the understanding that “if one of us is not free, then none of us are truly free”. Because we are all connected and what affects one of us will in some way impact the rest of us. Any form of “barrier” that we place between ourselves and our fellow man is a barrier to unconditional love, not just for them but for us as well.
We all share the challenges of living a human life. We all live with the knowledge of mortality– in our lives and those of our loved ones. We may be wealthy and powerful, but we cannot change the certainty that none of us live forever; none of us knows how long we will live. We may live to be old and see our bodies lose capability gradually or we may be “struck down” when we have barely begun to live. The knowledge of mortality is so uncomfortable for many that it is rarely even discussed; it is the “elephant in the room”. This knowledge may be the real lesson we learned from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden – that, as humans, we are not immortal!
All species have an innate desire for the preservation of their species, this is to be expected. But as sentient beings capable of knowing our own mortality, we have an even greater motivation for compassion with our fellow mortal humans. And this is just one of the common challenges that we face as humans. As social animals, we have created large societies and nation-states that require carefully coordinated cooperation between individuals and groups. Very few can say they are not dependent upon others for their very existence. We have others build our shelters, supply heat and cooling as needed, grow and deliver our food, protect us, and coordinate all of the systems for accomplishing these activities. And these are just our basic needs; to live fulfilling lives we require much more: education, entertainment and the arts, social and community-building activities, and spiritual development. These usually require even more involvement with others.
As we realize how dependent we are upon others, it becomes more obvious why it is fundamental that for long-term success and happiness in our lives, we need to practice some form of the Golden Rule. We are like each other, we share many of the same concerns and challenges, and we rely and depend upon each other to get what we need and what we want. Compassion, respect, and fairness come from a deep understanding of these truths.
Unity does NOT mean that we are all the same. Although we have many shared characteristics, we are each unique. We each have different gifts and experiences which provide us with unique opportunities to express ourselves and live a fulfilled life. Our diversity is not a weakness, it is our strength; any challenge to our species can be met with individuals who have the unique characteristics and ideas that will lead to a successful response. But this is only true if they are given the freedom to provide their gifts when they are needed.
If the world were static and unchanging, there could be an optimum way for our society to function that would only require limited knowledge and skills. People could be trained in these and be assured of a successful life. But the world is not this simple; societies continue to experiment with new understandings and new goals, we create new capabilities that, in turn, provide new possibilities. Our world changes and a new “optimum” is created, requiring new skills and knowledge. We never know what will be needed next as we co-evolve with our environment, our social and economic systems, and our technologies — that is why we need ALL of our gifts. That is why nature makes multiple varieties of similar plants and animals; they all have their “niche”: they are optimized for different climates, for different relationships with other species.
It might be clearer to see the power of diversity in our human-created systems. If you want to be a successful investor, for example, you need to understand how different investment types go through different cycles of growth and collapse. To have a portfolio that does well in all economic conditions, you need to have a diverse selection of investments, so that the bears are balanced by the bulls. Like different equity types, we all have “our time to shine”. We need each other for the good of our species!
This was the understanding that was behind Dr. King’s teachings – that humanity is stronger when we are all free to fully develop our unique gifts. Unity with diversity is a wisdom we all need to honor and integrate into all our institutions and systems. So, as we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, let’s remember his wisdom and call for Unity and equality of opportunity. We will all be stronger for it! As King said, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”