MLK, depression and a New Year’s hope

Paul Louis Metzger
Multnomah University professor,
Director of Institute for the Theology of Culture

As is well-documented, many people dread the holiday season. The close of one year and the beginning of another is supposed to be a time of great joy, but it can often be the occasion for isolation with accompanying sadness, even severe depression. Such depression can spill over into the new year. In reflecting on this subject, I came across some articles that chronicled Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s severe struggles with depression. In the midst of his various struggles, he was still able to inspire those who follow after him with his call for revolutionary empathy, creative nonconformity, and creative maladjustment. My hope is that the following sober reflections will encourage us to move forward with courage and constructive creativity in the new year to overcome depression and pursue just peace and equitable unity for all.

At least one article I read indicated that King tried to commit suicide on two occasions when he was a child. According to this report, MLK was a very sensitive youth who was deeply impacted emotionally by the racist abuses his family and community experienced. Reports also indicated that King struggled with major depression as an adult. No doubt, the constant pressure, attacks and racial oppression he and his community experienced weighed heavily on him throughout his life.

According to a Washington Post article, even the FBI hounded King with malicious intent. In fact, a letter that was allegedly written by someone at the FBI was interpreted by King as an attempt to blackmail him so that he would commit suicide. Here’s an excerpt from the article which includes a portion of the letter:

“Your ‘honorary degrees,’ your Nobel Prize (What a grim farce) . . . will not save you,” the letter said. “You are done.”

“There is only one thing left for you to do,” the letter said. “You know what it is . . . There is but one way out . . . You better take it before your filthy, abnormal, fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”

King suspected that the FBI was behind the letter and interpreted it as an attempt to blackmail him, apparently into committing suicide.

The intense pressure from so many quarters no doubt took its toll on King. Nassir Ghaemi, M.D., M.P.H., Professor of Psychiatry at Tufts University and Lecturer in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, wrote in a 2012 Psychology Today article that King struggled in his emotional and mental health throughout his life: “King knew what it meant to be maladjusted, psychologically, because he was not normal, psychiatrically. He had multiple periods of severe depression, and twice made suicide attempts as a child. Near the end of his life, some of his staff tried to get him into psychiatric treatment, but he refused.”

The same Psychology Today article goes on to argue that

It is no criticism to say that King had severe depression, a psychiatric illness. Some research studies show that depression enhances empathy toward others, as well as realism in assessment of one’s circumstances. King’s nonviolent resistance can be understood a politics of radical empathy, an accepting of one’s enemies as part and parcel of advancing one’s own agenda. It meant not killing or committing violence even against one’s worst enemy, because the goal was not to defeat the other but to change his attitudes. Racism was not a political problem to be outlawed; it was a psychological disease to be cured.

King, repeatedly depressed and sometimes suicidal, was familiar with psychological disease. And his specific disease may have helped him to be so extremely empathic, in his personal life and his politics, such that—to the rest of us normal, non-depressed humans—he seems almost superhuman, like the 30-foot monument of him recently erected in Washington, D.C.

Revolutionary empathy resulted in part from King’s multitude of challenges, which included his own psychological state. Now while many of us would have aborted the Civil Rights movement if we had become as increasingly unpopular as “the Inconvenient Hero” King, nonetheless, King endured and pushed forward with non-violent civil disobedience and his Beloved Community vision. It is perhaps easy for us to forget today given the aura surrounding King that at the time of his death, the majority of Americans viewed King in a poor light.

Not only did King model “radical empathy,” but also he embodied and operated from the perspective of “creative maladjustment.” Whereas most people seek to be well-adjusted to their surroundings, such adjustment impacts negatively human creativity and social transformation, which bring about greater equity and justice for all. Again, as Ghaemi claims in his Psychology Today piece,

King realized that to solve the problems of human life, especially the deepest problems—like racism, poverty, and war—we have to become, in a sense, abnormal. We have to stop going along; we have to stop accepting what everyone else believes. We have to become maladjusted if we are at all to become creative, and find that insoluble dilemmas often are the masks for other previously unrecognized problems with simple solutions.

Those of us who experience isolation over the holidays and throughout the year may take comfort from Dr. King’s own life situation. In fact, he’s not alone. No doubt, many other great prophetic and visionary leaders over the course of history experienced depression. Their emotional struggles fostered in them revolutionary empathy, as with King: “King’s nonviolent resistance can be understood a politics of radical empathy, an accepting of one’s enemies as part and parcel of advancing one’s own agenda.”

King pursued what he called “creative nonconformity” that involved creative maladjustment which was constructive in nature. Here’s King in a sermon delivered on this subject in 1954 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in which he discusses the appropriate form of creative maladjustment:

Some years ago Professor Bixler reminded us of the danger of overstressing the well-adjusted life. Everybody passionately seeks to be well-adjusted. We must, of course, be well-adjusted if we are to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities, but there are some things in our world to which men of goodwill must be maladjusted. I confess that I never intend to become adjusted to the evils of segregation and the crippling effects of discrimination, to the moral degeneracy of religious bigotry and the corroding effects of narrow sectarianism, to economic conditions that deprive men of work and food, and to the insanities of militarism and the self-defeating effects of physical violence.

Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted. We need today maladjusted men like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who, when ordered by King Nebuchadnezzar to bow before a golden image, said in unequivocal terms, “If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us. But if no, we will not serve thy gods”; like Thomas Jefferson, who in an age adjusted to slavery wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”; like Abraham Lincoln, who had the wisdom to discern that this nation could not survive half slave and half free; and supremely like our Lord, who, in the midst of the intricate and fascinating military machinery of the Roman Empire, reminded his disciples that “they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.”

Through such maladjustment an already decadent generation may be called to those things that make for peace.

King took comfort from the fact that he was not alone in his struggle. He drew from the pages of history and transcendent ideals to gain energy and strength. Ancient figures of Israel and the Church in the face of idolatry and tyranny, the seminal leaders of this country’s origins and continuation in the pursuit of equitable unity, and the Lord Jesus’ own pursuit of lasting and just peace moved King to take and keep his stand in the face of isolation and depression as one who was creatively maladjusted.

Severe depression can be unbearable and can cripple us. It may even prompt us to consider taking our lives. But if we know that we are not alone in our depression and isolation, and that others have experienced it, too, and if we are tracking and following the long moral arc of the universe which bends toward justice, like Kind did, perhaps we can gain strength at the beginning of the new year. Perhaps we can move forward to be creative in our maladjusted being with radical empathy like the Lord Jesus and his servant King, and others before and after them, in service to those who are marginalized.

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