Dangerous Unselfishness

Martin Luther King, Jr. in Montgomery Alabama, 1958.
Grey Villet / The LIFE Picture Collection

Let us turn our thoughts today to Martin Luther King
And recognize that there are ties between us
All men and women living on the earth
Ties of hope and love, sister and brother, oh.
That we are bound together in our desire to see the world become
A place in which our children can grow free and strong.
We are bound together by the task that stands before us
And the road that lies ahead.
We are bound and we are bound.

There is a feeling like the clenching of a fist
There is a hunger in the center of the chest
There is a passage through the darkness and the mist
And though the body sleeps the heart will never rest.

James Taylor, “Shed a Little Light”

A Day “On”

Paul and I have spent the weekend celebrating the great words and deeds of Dr. King. It has been a 3-year tradition to play some of our favorite MLK, Jr. speeches on this day set aside to honor him. This morning was no different. We cooked and ate breakfast to his thundering oration of Paul’s favorite piece: “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” which he delivered on April 3, 1968 less than 24 hours before his assassination.

In this speech he recalls the attempt on his life in 1958 by a woman who tried to stab him at a book signing in Harlem. During his recovery, he remembers:

Well, about four days later, they allowed me, after the operation, after my chest had been opened and the blade had been taken out, to move around in the wheelchair of the hospital. They allowed me to read some of the mail that came in, and from all over the states and the world kind letters came in. I read a few, but one of them I will never forget. I had received one from the president and the vice president; I’ve forgotten what those telegrams said. I’d received a visit and a letter from the governor of New York, but I’ve forgotten what that letter said. (Yes)

But there was another letter (All right) that came from a little girl, a young girl who was a student at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that letter and I’ll never forget it. It said simply, “Dear Dr. King: I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School.” She said, “While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I’m a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.” (Yes) [Applause]

This story has always touched me, especially in light of the fact that he spoke these words on the eve of his death.

Paul and I attended the event Made in America: King’s Dream in Today’s Economy at the Brooklyn Museum yesterday as well as the 25th Annual Brooklyn Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) this morning. Many of the speakers reminded the audience to use this holiday not as a “day off” but as a “day on.” Many of the participants speculated about what Dr. King would think of the United States today if he were alive.

The consensus is that he would be disappointed and dissatisfied with the current state of affairs in this country.

Dissatisfied with the gap between the haves and the have-nots growing larger than it’s ever been, with the divisive political rhetoric, with corporations being treated better than individual citizens. I know that I am dissatisfied and I bet he would be too. Yet, just being dissatisfied didn’t bring about the sweeping changes that MLK was a part of. He put his thoughts and his words into action. I ask myself how I can do the same.

During King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech he says, “Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.”

I would like to challenge myself to do this. To develop the kind of dangerous unselfishness that Dr. King spoke about and the kind of dangerous unselfishness that he lived. This is how I believe I can do my part to realize Dr. King’s dream.

The Giving Tree

This kind of dangerous unselfishness reminds me of one of my favorite children’s books, The Giving Tree. Paul gifted me the 40th anniversary edition of The Giving Tree for the holidays, complete with a CD of Shel Silverstein reading the story.

You can watch an animation below that uses the same audio track and is accompanied by Silverstein’s own animated drawings. What struck me about the audio version is how it differs from the printed one. I don’t know if it was intentional – often when I’m reading a book to children I add or drop a word or two – but a page is conspicuously absent in the reading but present in the printed copy.

“And the tree was happy…but not really.”

The audio and video versions of the book do not include the phrase, “but not really.” I wonder if this was to put a happier spin on the story or if the author truly intended the original version not to include it. I always thought of this book as a tragedy. It made me sad when I read it as a little girl and it makes me sad today. It is a deceptively simple story: The little boy takes and takes and takes from the tree until the tree has been reduced to a stump. And then he sits on the stump without so much as a “thank you.”

Some see this story as a parable, a cautionary tale, a pseudo religious text, a metaphor for marriage or for our careless treatment of Mother Earth.

I wonder what MLK would say about this story.

Would he see this as an example of being dangerously unselfish? Would he rail against the injustice? I’d like to think he would do both. He would commend the tree for its generosity but he would also challenge the tree to stand up for itself – to demand the respect it deserves. He would challenge the little boy to be a man and to recognize the tree’s sacrifice and in turn to learn from the selflessness of the tree and to practice this himself. That’s what I’m going to do.