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Insights From Martin Luther King, Jr. on Psychological Resilience

There are two types of people who travel this world: The one who follows the river and the one who takes on the mountain. The one who follows the river is calm in the certainty that he will find his way; he has a path to follow, which is of certitude and comfort. The one who tackles the mountain dares risk everything for the chance that he will reach the peak and his cry of victory will shake the earth below.


But when reaching for great gains, there is also the potential for great pain. Because the mountain climber takes on big tasks, he risks painful consequences: the sting of disappointments, the injury of setbacks, the fear of failing to reach the peak.


Looking back through history at the great leaders and trailblazers who dared to take on the mountain, what can we learn from their journeys? Even more importantly, what can we learn about how they handled the challenges along the way?


In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, this week’s post is dedicated to Dr. King/MLK and his journey. MLK was a revolutionary figure in American history who fought for racial equality for his local community and the African American community nationwide. He paid for his dedication to fighting racism with his life, but he left an indelible mark on history. In his honor, I would like to illuminate his challenges and triumphs as he tackled his mountain, including his psychological source of strength.

Born in 1929, MLK grew up in a middle-class black neighborhood in Atlanta, Georgia. His childhood was happy and left relatively unscathed by racism. His family was loving and supportive, his father a successful pastor at a large Baptist church. Early on, it was clear that MLK was eloquent and precocious. He had a strong desire to help others, but he vacillated on the correct path to take: he initially pursued an education in medicine, then sociology, then law. He eventually landed on a bible class that inspired him to pursue a career in theology.


At the Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, MLK discovered a whole other side to Christianity that emphasized social commitment and political activism. Several months before graduating, he received a potential job offer at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. His wife, Coretta, who had grown up in the area and knew how fiercely segregated the city was tried to discourage MLK from accepting the position. In Montgomery, MLK wound up experiencing a virulent racism that he had never encountered before in his life.


This was his first real challenge. For a naturally conflict-averse person, this could have been the end of MLK’s story if he had chosen the easy path and left Montgomery. But he didn’t choose the easy path—he chose the path he knew was right. He understood that changing the status quo would require many people working together through hard times. Despite the risks, he decided to dedicate his talents to lead the cause.


When a leader tries to change the status quo—especially something as deeply ingrained as racism against the black community in the 1950s—he is often met with harsh opposition. So to, as MLK continued on his mission, he was forced to confront what must have seemed an endless number of challenges: the demonstrations that failed, the white leadership that harshly countered his efforts, the internal bickering of the NAACP, the threats to his life.


We can take it for granted today that MLK’s efforts and the civil rights movement overall were a success, but MLK himself didn’t have a crystal ball. As he faced challenge after challenge, he had no guarantees that his efforts would bear fruit. So, what kept him going?


Interestingly, in a recent weekly Torah portion, I found direct parallels between MLK and Joseph. Similar to MLK, Joseph, one of the twelve sons of the Jewish patriarch Jacob, took a difficult path to become a leader. At a young age, he was sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers. After being wrongfully accused of a crime by his master, he was thrown in prison. It was only after suffering many challenges and demonstrating his ability to adapt and grow that he became the viceroy of Egypt, saving the country along with his own family from famine.


As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks pointed out in his commentary Lessons in Leadership, Joseph had in double measure one of the necessary gifts of a leader: the ability to keep going despite opposition, envy, false accusation, and repeated setbacks. Every leader who stands for something will face opposition. It’s how he handles this opposition that will determine his ability to reach his goals.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C.

MLK soldiered on because he knew that he was part of a worthy cause and a bigger picture. Like Joseph, he was a religious man that believed in a higher source of power. After a particularly stressful event, MLK sat alone over a cup of coffee in his kitchen one night and prayed for strength. At that moment, he heard a voice from within: “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you even until the end of the world.” 


What sustains people through setbacks may be belief in a higher power or the mission itself, or perhaps belief in themselves, along with sheer tenacity. What sustained men like Joseph and MLK, aside from a tremendous faith in God, was insight into their roles as individuals in the bigger picture. A plan was unfolding whose end they could only dimly discern. Ultimately, all the bad things that had happened to them were necessary for the intended outcome to occur. As a result, they were able to psychologically survive and continue their missions, without resentment about the past or despair in the face of an unknown future.


We all have a mission in this world. Some of us choose the more tranquil path along the river, while some of us dare to take on the mountain. As MLK said in his final days, against fierce resistance: “We got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop… I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land.”


MLK had a dream and he was willing to see it through, even if it meant persevering through challenging times. Let us take this lesson to heart and channel adversity into motivation so we can reach our own worthy goals.

Sources used:

The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene

Lessons in Leadership by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

"Martin Luther King" in TIME Magazine

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About Jessica Lauren Walton: Jessica is a communications strategist, video producer, and writer in the U.S. defense sector. She has written articles on a range of security and mental health topics and conducted interviews with military leadership, CIA officers, law enforcement, psychologists, filmmakers, and more. Jessica recently completed her memoir about her experience as an American woman struggling with mental illness while trying to get into Israeli intelligence.

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