What Martin Luther King Jr. Taught Me About the Meaning of Life

what martin luther king jr taught me about the meaning of life

Martin Luther King Jr. would have turned 86 today. His legacy continues to inspire millions, including myself. In my previous post, I wrote about my twenty favorite MLK quotes that have influenced my worldview in life. Today, I’d like to share my thoughts on what Martin Luther King Jr. taught me about the meaning of life.

Six months before he was assassinated , Martin Luther King delivered a lesser known but exceptionally insightful address on the topic of purpose and meaning of life. In just 563 words, delivered at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia, King suggests three relevant and powerful ways to seek a meaningful life.

The three principles King shared that will help you discover the true meaning of life are:

1) Understanding of your dignity

2) Working hard to achieve excellence

3) Serving others like you’re on a mission from God – because you are!

King prefaced to understand meaning and purpose in life, there must come order and structure. Life cannot have meaning when you just simply attribute meaning to your life life. King says, “a building is not well erected without a good, solid blueprint,” and “each of you is in the process of building the structure of your lives, and the question is whether you have a proper, a solid and a sound blueprint.”

King tells these groups of high school students, many of whom were impoverished and hopeless in their future prospects, that they have intrinsic “dignity “and “worth,” precisely because they are made according to a transcendent blueprint. As King said,  “number one in your life’s blueprint should be a deep belief in . . . your own somebodiness. Don’t allow anybody to make you feel that you’re nobody.” The Bible also says that we are God’s “workmanship.” We are created in a unique way. The Greek word for workmanship is poema, or poem. Like a poem, God made us with a beauty and complexity that is not captured in the first pass. This message remains a timeless principle but a timely message. In my own personal life, it took years and years to unravel and expose all the myths that surrounded my true sense of identity. Once I found my unadulterated self, the Bible pointed me to who I was – an apple of His life.

Secondly, King told these students to develop a “determination to achieve excellence in your various fields of endeavor.”He was clear and forthright that success doesn’t come without paying your dues. We live in a society in which the world paints a story of a overrated and unrealistic picture of successful people. Hard work is often eclipsed by the interesting stories that surround their lives.

Greg Forster says, “the most profound part of the talk is where he connects this eternal calling to work with an up-to-date understanding of the dynamics of economic change. He knows that in some ways a new world is opening up for the children of Barratt Junior High. That new world is still unfolding today, and we need to keep alive King’s vision of its potential.

Notice how he couples a realistic acknowledgment of injustice with a hopeful realization of new opportunities:

“I say to you, my young friends, doors are opening to you – doors of opportunities that were not open to your mothers and your fathers – and the great challenge facing you is to be ready to face these doors as they open. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great essayist, said in a lecture in 1871, “If a man can write a better book or preach a better sermon or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor, even if he builds his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.” This hasn’t always been true, but it will become increasingly true, and so I would urge you to study hard, to burn the midnight oil; I would say to you, don’t drop out of school. I understand all the sociological reasons, but I urge you that in spite of your economic plight, in spite of the situation that you’re forced to live in — stay in school.”

At the end of his speech, King unfolds the divine mystery of vocation. “No matter what your arenas of service may be, in every activity of life you are on a mission from God. What matters is not how much wealth or success you accumulate – whether you are, as he puts it, the tree on top of the hill or the shrub in the valley – but how faithful you are to your mission”:

“When you discover what you will be in your life, set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it. Don’t just set out to do a good job. Set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn’t do it any better. If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera, sweep streets like 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.”