Birmingham, Alabama. April, 1963.
Tension filled the A.G. Gaston motel room as Martin Luther King and his peers sat in deliberation. Their Birmingham campaign was planned to ignite the civil rights movement. To this end, demonstrations were organized to expose racial injustices of the city, which would inspire the local community to join the cause, send national media exposure to Birmingham, and force the federal government to take necessary action.
Although brilliant in theory, it wasn’t getting nearly the traction King and his team hoped. Local participation in the demonstrations were dwindling, the black business community were persuading to call the movement off, and doubt started to form throughout King’s team. The room was split what to do next.
First and foremost, King and his peers were pastors and Easter weekend was soon approaching. Some felt they had a duty to return home to carry out Easter services. Others knew if they didn’t act fast, the movement could be in jeopardy. To complicate things further, they recently received a court injunction practically guaranteeing their arrests if they carried out the demonstrations.
King excused himself from the group and entered another room to pray on his decision. He was in a bind. Should he stay to save the movement or go back home to uphold his responsibilities to his church? As a pastor, should he willingly break the law following the court injunction or choose to follow it? These were the issues circling King’s mind as he sat in contemplation.
After a bit of time, the door of his room swung open and out came King announcing he was there to stay. They carried out the demonstration that weekend, King was arrested, and from scraps of newspaper and toilet paper inside his holding cell, wrote his legendary “Letter from Birmingham Jail” igniting the civil rights movement around the nation. In his letter King wrote:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
This was a truth beating in King’s heart. And it was this very truth that gave him the courage to stay in Birmingham when all the other pastors (including his own father) were pleading for them to leave. It gave him the strength to walk straight into the fire of the bigotry, violence and injustice he’d endure while there. It gave him solace while sitting in his holding cell in solitary confinement.
King held onto his truth and in doing so faced all the turmoil it brought with it. It’s not an easy task and an issue many of us face today. It’s the struggle of honoring our truths when those truths means being thrown in difficult situations.
It’s the wife suddenly realizing she been unhappy in her marriage for years. It’s the corporate manager 15 years into a successful career, realizing he’s unfulfilled. It’s the guy living in the closet struggling to come out to his friends and family.
Discovering truths like these can be terrifying. The choice before us is deciding whether to hold onto these truths or simply turn a blind eye.
Committing To Truth
In Ram Dass’ Path’s To God: Living The Bhagavad Gita, he shares a story of Mahatma Gandhi who faced this very issue:
“Mahatma Gandhi was leading a march once; many people had left their jobs and come long distances to take part in the march, but after the first day Gandhi called his lieutenants together and said, ‘This is wrong. This march is not a good idea after all. I’m calling it off.’ His lieutenants got very upset and said, ‘But Gandhi-ji, you can’t do that! People have come from all over to take part in this march. We can’t stop it now!’ Gandhi replied, ‘I don’t know absolute truth – only God knows that. I’m human; I know only relative truth, and that changes from day to day. My commitment must be to truth, and not to consistency.’ That is, I have to honor my commitment to the truth, even it means reversing myself to do it.”
Truth and change are inescapably linked. You can’t have one without the other. Bruce Lee once said “All fixed set patterns are incapable of adaptability or pliability. The truth is outside of all fixed patterns.”
Gandhi and King had a firm understanding of this. Their dedications were towards their truths, and embraced the changes those truths were linked with. This made all the difference in the end.
We can look towards similar examples…
Before he was the Buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama was a prince of a city in modern-day Nepal. He had all the luxuries that came along with being the son of a king – beautiful palaces, a harem of women, the finest of foods, every desire he could fathom was fulfilled. Yet amidst it all, he realized none of these luxuries could end suffering. This was his truth. And it was this truth that lead him to shed his former life as a Prince and embark on a journey towards enlightenment. He traveled to faraway lands, experimented with many spiritual methods, and saw endless changes in his personal life. Amidst all this change, the truth remained in his heart eventually leading him to enlightenment.
Moving to modern times, we can look at a prolific band like The Beatles. Many bands fall for the trap of clinging to a certain style of music, a certain image, a certain way of performing. This rigidity can plateau a band to obscurity. The Beatles became legendary for the opposite. Their truth was to create incredible art. To do so they constantly redefined themselves – from their music, to their image, to their performances, to everything. This adaptability charged their creativity and brought their music to heights never seen before.
Some of the greatest athletes have a similar story. Take Tiger Woods. From an early age, he discovered his truth was excellence in golf. To this end, he learned to embrace change. Throughout his career he’s gone through numerous coaches, numerous types of swings, grips, clubs, training regimens. It’s these changes that molded him to become one of the greatest golfer to have played the game.
George Bernard Shaw once said “Progress is impossible without change.” From the Buddha to The Beatles, success was directly tied to their ability to honor their truths and embrace the changes it brought with them. If we’re looking to progress our own lives, we have to be willing to do the same.
Why We Cling To The Familiar
Yet for many of us, this could be a tall order. Oftentimes the truths we discover demand changes we may not be ready to make. Because of this, it’s far too easy to cling to the familiar.
It’s easy to stay in a so-so relationship than face the pain of breaking it off and embarking on a life alone. It’s easy to stay in a lucrative, yet unfulfilling career than take the risk of following your dreams. It’s easy to stay in the closet, than risk jeopardizing your relationship with friends and family.
Choosing consistency is the safe route. It gives us a sense of security. The examples I described may not be ideal, but at least you know what you’re getting. Many would rather be unhappily safe, than risk stepping into the unknown.
Most of us hate change. It’s unpleasant. It involves getting outside your comfort zone. It involves stepping nose-to-nose with your fears. It involves breaking free of decades of bad habits; breaking free of your comforts. It could mean disappointing loved ones.
James A. Garfield once wrote “The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.” Many aren’t willing to go through this short-term misery and because of this, their truths begin falling by the wayside.
How can we overcome this trap? How can we find the courage to honor our truths and welcome the changes that those truths demand of us?
Understand that change is inevitable. It’s a basic law of nature. Nothing is ever static. Compare your life from a decade ago. Chances are you had radically different tastes in music, clothing, hobbies, the people you surrounded yourself with, in practically every area of your life. Time alters us, and it’s something we can’t escape from.
Heraclitus was famous for saying “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Whether you like it or not, you are always changing. From your tastes, to your values, to your personality – nothing is constant.
Yet it’s far too easy to overlook this fact. There’s a psychological phenomenon called “The End of History Illusion” which states individuals can acknowledge the significant change that occurred in their past, but tend to underestimate the amount of change that will occur in their future. Meaning, most people people walk around with the illusion that who they are will be the same now until the end of time.
The University of Virginia conducted a fascinating study that explored this topic. In the study 19,000 people answered a questionnaire about change in their lives. The finding confirmed how we tend to downplay change. In the study, the average 20 year old’s prediction for the next decade were not nearly as significant as what the average 30 year old acknowledged actually changed in their life throughout their twenties.
So embrace change, it’s inevitable. Confucius once said “The one who would be constant in happiness, must frequently change.”
I wrote a post on a Taoist concept called Wu-Wei. In short, the concept can be seen as moving with the natural current of your life and not against it. This ties in perfectly with this topic of change. You can swim against the current and attempt to rigidly cling to the familiar. Or you can swim with the current, acknowledge that change is inescapable, and evolve in the direction your truth lead you towards.
Ask yourself, what if Martin Luther King conformed to his role as a pastor and chose to go back home for Easter Sunday?
What if the Buddha stayed a prince and never ventured out in his journey towards enlightenment?
What if The Beatles never had the courage to redefine themselves throughout their career?
Chances are the world would have forever been altered if these great individuals caved in and let consistency reign over the truths.
If you’ve found a truth budding in your heart, don’t let it go. Let it rise to the surface and embrace the changes it may bring. It may be difficult to stomach at first, but overtime it will flower and bring fruits you could have never have enjoyed otherwise.
Photo by Seam Less