On Saturday evening I took my seventh grade daughter to see Hidden Figures. This movie struck me as rare and important for several reasons:
It is loaded with strong female characters in prominent roles, and men were cast in supporting roles.
Characters of color are the center of the film. For the three women at the very heart of the story, their race is forever a factor in their professional lives. The women are each supported by good men who help create the space necessary for them to succeed.
It is a movie that deals honestly with topics regarding race and privilege that is also perfectly pitched for a family audience. I bet that many families are having healthy and honest conversations in the wake of seeing it.
It provides insight into the corrosive nature of 1960s era institutional racism without simplifying the characters into cartoons of good guys and villains.
Just as the characters in the film rise above the expectations to which others try to limit them, so to the movie rises above the expectations people have had for the relative box office success of a movie starring three women in lead roles. I don’t think I have been in a theater that full in many years…while not sold out, it was an excellent crowd.
People applauded at the end. To me, this applause felt like a throwback to another time when applause at the end of a movie was more common.
In a moment in our national history when we are too often starkly divided by issues of race and viewpoint, it reminds us that we have already come a long way, and thus it reminds us as well that not only is there more ground to cover but we are fully capable of pushing ahead successfully to something better.
It is a movie a Head of School can recommend without caveat or hesitation.
I am certain that many young people, particularly but not exclusively young women, will one day cite this as a movie that inspired them to pursue science and math.
[I gave the following chapel talk this morning at St. George’s Independent School as part of our annual Martin Luther King Chapel. Our hymn was “Oh God our Help in Ages Past”.]
“This is my faith, and I choose to go on through my days with this faith and I tell you if you catch it, you will be able to rise from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope. Love yourself, you are commanded to do that—that is the length of life. Love your neighbor as you love yourself, you are commanded to do that—that’s the breadth of life. But never forget that there is a first and even greater commandment, Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart with all thy soul, and with all thy mind—that is the height of life. And when you do this, you’ll live the complete life.”
Good morning! The words that I just read were from a sermon given by Dr. Martin Luther King in 1960.
On the last day of February that year, Dr. King gave this sermon at the Friendship Baptist Church in Pasadena, California. It was the latest version of a sermon he first gave in 1954, and indeed he would continue to deliver updated versions of it over the course of the eight years he had left before his assassination in April of 1968. I became fascinated with it when I spotted a meme on Twitter with this brief quotation: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?”Given our commitment to service to others at St. George’s, which on Monday we will voice as a chorus of action and service on our Day On, I felt the quotation called me to find out more.
Given our commitment to service to others at St. George’s, which on Monday we will voice as a chorus of action and service on our Day On, I felt the quotation called me to find out more.
In my brief research, I found out that the words were indeed from Dr. King and came from a sermon called: “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life.” Finding it was a good reminder for me of the benefits of looking deeper, of not simply allowing pithy quotations to stand in for careful reading of complex material. Without taking the step beyond the original quotation, I would have missed something uniquely powerful.
Reading and re-reading the sermon reminded me of what a brave and brilliant thinker Dr. King was. At the time he delivered this sermon he was only thirty years old, yet he commanded the room with his intellect, his faith, and his force of character. He was also unafraid to call out injustice even when it rested at the feet of the powerful and influential, when it rested at the feet of those he called his “white brothers”. Additionally, he didn’t hesitate to call out a hard truth of our nation when he said, “America cannot remain a first-class nation so long as she has second class citizens.” With a recognition that I am inadequate to capture its full nuance and complexity, I want to share a few of the key ideas from the sermon as I believe it has a great deal of relevance to us. Its centerpiece is his assertion of the three dimensions of a complete life.
Here are Dr. King’s words: “there are three dimensions of any complete life to which we can fitly give the words length, breadth, and height. Now, the length of life, as we shall use it here, is not its duration, not how long it lasts, not how long you live, but it is the push of a life forward to achieve its inner powers and ambitions. It is the inward concern for one’s own welfare. The breadth of life is the outreach, the outward concern for the welfare of others, and the height of life is the upward reach for God. If life is to be complete, these three must be together, in other words, life at its best is something of a triangle. At one angle stands the individual person, at the other angle stands other persons, and at the tip top stands the supreme infinite person—God. If your life is to be complete, all three must work harmoniously together and be properly cultivated, for the complete life is the three-dimensional life.”
So we have a) the length of life, b) the breadth (B-R-E-A-D-T-H) of life, and c) the height of life. Dr. King calls these three parts a triangle.
The length of life, Dr. King asserts is not about how long our life is but rather it is embodied in this idea: “that before you can love other people adequately you got to love your own self properly.” I am interested in the word “properly” here as Dr. King makes an explicit case against those who “live life as if nobody lived in the world but themselves.” In expounding on the characteristics of such a person he goes on to say, “other people become mere steps by which they climb to their personal ends and ambitions. And if they manage to get around to loving, it becomes a utilitarian love—they love only those people that they can use.”
The breadth of life is the dimension “in which we are concerned about others.” He provides intriguing perspective regarding the breadth of life saying: “an individual hasn’t begun to live until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all of humanity.” This is worth hearing again…“an individual hasn’t begun to live until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all of humanity.”
And finally, the height of life is our connection God where we: “reach-up beyond self-interest and beyond humanity.” In this part of the sermon he admonishes us not to let, “big cars”, “bank accounts”, beautiful homes”, the “man-made lights of the city”, “skyscrapers”, and “television” get in the way of looking up and thinking about the divine light of God. And he asserts that “if life is to be complete, we must discover God.”
His conception of the three dimensions is helpful for us, as I believe we are surrounded by cultural messages that create the illusion that the first dimension is the only dimension, and in a sermon given long ago, Dr. King continues to call us to higher purpose. We can be so self-obsessed that we not only fail to “love ourselves properly”, but we miss the other two dimensions completely. This was a danger when Dr. King shared this sermon, and it is at least as much of a danger now. While the first dimension is vital and necessary, we have to remember we are called to far more. Our lives take on meaning as we live toward all three dimensions. We live in connection with others; we should strive to live in communion with them, and Dr. King’s challenging question–“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?” –should remain before us like a like a gentle and divine push on our backs directing us where to go.
We live in connection with others; we should strive to live in communion with them, and Dr. King’s challenging question–“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?” –should remain before us like a gentle and divine push on our backs directing us where to go.
As an orator, Dr. King understood the power of endings, and given our celebration of Dr. King’s legacy, as well as our commitment to the Day ON rather than a day off on Monday’s MLK Day, I think it appropriate to finish this morning with the words he used to finish his sermon that day long ago—almost fifty-seven years ago: “I say to you this morning that my faith is in the eternal God, whose purpose changes not, so I can cry out:
Oh God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come
our shelter from the stormy blast,
and our eternal home.
Before the hills in order stood,
or earth received her frame,
from everlasting Thou art God,
to endless years the same.
This is my faith, and I choose to go on through my days with this faith and I tell you if you catch it, you will be able to rise from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope. Love yourself, you are commanded to do that—that is the length of life. Love your neighbor as you love yourself, you are commanded to do that—that’s the breadth of life. But never forget that there is a first and even greater commandment, Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart with all thy soul, and with all thy mind—that is the height of life. And when you do this, you’ll live the complete life.”
[Below is the flyer for St. George’s families for our Day of Service, our Day ON rather than a day off.]
Last week I took my daughter to see Jason Isbell and his wife, Amanda Shires, play at the Germantown Performing Arts Center. It was Eleanor’s first real concert. After selling out his first scheduled show at GPAC in minutes, another show was added (also selling out in minutes), and I was fortunate enough to grab a pair of tickets before they all disappeared before my eyes on the computer screen.
Both Isbell and Shires are triple threats–gifted songwriters, standout musicians, and compelling presences on stage. It was a wonderful show highlighted by what I think is his best song (of many extraordinary ones), “Elephant”, and his duet with his wife of Warren Zevon‘s beautiful “Mutineer.”
The experience of seeing this show has by coincidence paired with another to reinforce my need to keep art present and important in my life and to help my own child see its stabilizing relevance in and amongst the static that infuses our day to day lives.
The other experience was going to pick up our new painting, called “Down to Drop D” by Memphis painter, Danny Broadway. If you are like me when you tell the story of a piece of art you own, you tell the story of where and how you got it. The narrative of acquisition becomes intertwined with the story of the piece of art. Its story becomes part of your story. Your story becomes part of its story. As for this piece, Danny and I had had a conversation going back some months about what this particular painting might become. Among his remarkable talents, Danny is an outstanding listener and a stunningly creative thinker, and as a result he was able to paint something that, while drawn from our conversation, went far beyond it to become something far better than I could imagine.
When my wife, daughter and I went to pick up the painting at his house and studio over the holidays, we were not only picking it up and taking it home, but we were also learning more about the context from which it came. We were able to see other things he was working on, and through our conversation in his studio, we also got a better understanding of what is important to him as an artist.
Taking the time to see live music or to appreciate visual art is a way of taking care of ourselves, of stepping outside the rumble of our daily lives in order to remain centered. Such experiences can refresh us, comfort us, challenge us, disquiet us–rarely they somehow do each at the same time. It is imperative that we pass down to our children a sense of the power of all of the arts to enrich us and to provide us with perspective on the meaning of our own lives and the lives of others.
[When I refer to the arts, I include a) the visual arts: drawing, painting, ceramics, photography, sculpture, b) the literary arts, and c) the performing arts: dance, theater, music.]
[By the way “Drop D” is a way of tuning the guitar where the sixth string–the lowest string–is dropped from the standard E down to D. The man in the painting is tuning the guitar “down to drop D.”]
My wife, daughter and I spent a number of weeks during the summer of 2010 in Egypt and Tunisia. Only months later both countries experienced what has come to be known as the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring was a series of anti-government protests and violent rebellions that occurred in the Middle East in early 2011.
At the time of our trip to North Africa, I worked at Hawken School in Cleveland, OH, and after being inundated with news of the dramatic events that had recently occurred in Egypt and Tunisia, I wrote the “The Beginning of the End of the Revolution” for a fascinating school drama production in the Spring of 2011 called “Thirty Plays in Sixty Minutes.” Students and faculty members alike submitted plays anonymously. It was a stellar project, allowing the community to come together not only to sit in the audience for the play, but to play a part in creating the theater experience itself. An extraordinarily imaginative faculty member, Julia Griffin, not only orchestrated the judging of the scripts, but also directed the talented group of young actors in meeting the unique demands of this particular production.
I had not ever thought of posting this play; however, it came back to mind for me as I reflected on the number of hotspots in the world where there is conflict. Julia was kind enough to search it out when I asked if she still had a copy somewhere. Re-reading it now six years later, colored by current international events, was an uneasy experience.
The draft that was performed was a bit shortened from the draft below as a result of the need to shorten it to fit exactly into the two-minute format.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END OF THE REVOLUTION
There is a person standing to the side prepared to offer and to pour water. There is a small table and a stool or chair center stage. The first character is already seated as the play starts.
Each speaking character replaces the previous in speaking to the invisible ‘Powers That Be.” They are five characters playing one. Perhaps they should each be wearing identical scarfs. One moves right into the seat as the previous character is leaving it. These transitions should be seamless and as quick as they can be without being sloppy.
[An old man, nervous, and a bit in awe, never making direct eye contact except tentatively and briefly when he says “THE POWERS THAT BE” and “garner your attention”] Strange that my voice would come to matter. And now of all moments for it to be called for? I have thought so often and to such pleasure about the things I would tell the powers that be—THE POWERS THAT BE. I could muse for hours about what I would do if I just had the opportunity to say something that would reach your ears or even do something that would garner your attention. I am fairly certain that it is just dawning on you that my musing is the musing of many.
[The server comes over to offer water] Yes? [Only just now aware the server is there] Oh no, no thank you… [The Server turns away] …well, perhaps I will…
[Transition to a confident young woman, a rebel perhaps conscious of not wanting to seem afraid] I wonder about what amounts to good counsel to you. It can seem to me that you learn the price of milk on cue before you travel the country, but that its relevance is as abstract as tanks lined along some river in some hot and dusty OTHER place. Tanks with people milling around as if looking at or avoiding strange pieces of modern art. Milk prices and tanks. Tanks and milk prices under the canopy of your imagination…ready plunder for your next self-satisfied platform.
[Transition to a young boy or girl] I do not mean to sound rude…perhaps I am a bit nervous. Thank you. [looking over to the server as he/she sips the water nervously and puts the glass back down.]
[Transition to a man with a bandaged eye. The un-bandaged eye is consistently though not perfectly aimed at a single spot dead center in the audience. As he begins speaking, he is theatrically checking pockets, chest pocket first, pockets in jacket second, gives a knowing “harrumph” when he finds them empty, and takes another drink of water.] Is the world you inhabit an echo chamber?—I imagine it to be so…full of voices layered upon voices upon voices upon voices until they are distinguished less by what they are saying than by what they are wearing…this one in a uniform.. that one in a suit, the next one a strange and poorly accessorized recent flood victim, the next the hero of a skyscraper fire sporting a charred tan fire-retardant jacket and the kind of earnestness THE POWERS THAT BE can never have again and thus will attach to given any chance at all.
[Transition to the scary one …staring straight ahead and perfectly pulled together, professional, direct, calm] So here you are, stuck with me for two minutes, and after so much thought and preparation [picking a bit of lint from his sleeve] …preparation on my part by the way that was everything but practical—I can waste the time, I tell you [falsely warm]…after so much thought, I have a few things to say and important advice to give… [Coldly and slowly] The chance to be bigger than the moment has passed. Listen to the voice that matters to you most. For your information, my voice, funny isn’t it [not smiling], my voice now matters to you the most. Don’t talk. Even if you think it will help…that it can pull things back into control…don’t. You see, your story is ending. [Looking at his or her watch] It is just about ended in fact. Be prepared for the worst. [Leaning purposefully forward and slower still] Do not think for- one- minute- that- this- can’t- really- be- happening- here… that- this- THAT- THIS- [Clearly angry but still controlled] can’t- be- happening- to- you.