Life's most persistent question

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Jarad A. Denton
  • 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs
It was a hot, summer day like any other in the city of Montgomery, Ala. Children played in the streets, using tools from their parents' garages to unscrew fire hydrants, so they could feel a cool respite from the scorching August sun. Men grumbled under their breath as they pushed lawnmowers over stubborn patches of grass, wiping the sweat from their brows and silently cursing themselves for watering the lawns at all.

At 454 Dexter Avenue, the usual Sunday parishioners began to take their seats for the weekly Baptist service - a sermon on "Conquering Self-Centeredness."

"I want to make two or three announcements as quickly as possible so that we can move on with our worship service and not stay here too long in the midst of extreme heat," the reverend said above the rhythmic chorus of hand fans and heat-induced sighs. "Unfortunately, we do not have an air-conditioned church, so we find ourselves suffering the consequences. And I will try to keep that in mind this morning and make our services as brief as possible."

By now, the crowd in this church had become accustomed to the brevity of the reverend's sermons. He had become somewhat of a celebrity of late, taking his message beyond the brick walls of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to the various other "colored-churches" throughout Montgomery. He had even gone so far as to bring his message of "Desegregation and the Future" to the Commodore Hotel in New York City. But today, he was back in Alabama - bringing the winds of change on his heels.

"I want to continue the series of sermons this morning that I started several weeks ago," he said. "The series dealing with the problems of personality integration. This morning our subject is: 'Conquering Self-centeredness.' 'Conquering Self-centeredness.' I probably will not have time to do justice to this many-sided subject because of the heat. And I don't want to preach too long. But for the moments left, I at least want to suggest certain ways to conquer self-centeredness and at least place the subject before you. So that you can go out and add the meat and try, in some way, to make it meaningful and practical in your everyday lives."

Understandably, this drew a few skeptical reactions from the crowd. The reverend was speaking to a group who had known hate, segregation and slavery for generations. They had done enough at the demand of others under the sharp command of a whip. Now hardly seemed the time to question internal motivations; but the reverend continued nonetheless - speaking about the singular question life poses to everyone. This question, which follows a person from birth until death, causes some to rise above their own selfish pursuits and aspire to something greater.

"An individual has not begun to live until he can rise above the narrow horizons of his particular individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity," he said. "And this is one of the big problems of life, that so many people never quite get the point of rising above self. And so they end up the tragic victims of self-centeredness. They end up victims of distorted and disrupted personality."

Life, the reverend said, does not fully come into being until individuals rise above themselves and begin replacing the "I" in their life with the "Thou." However, the challenge is to do this without suppressing one's ego. So often, "ego" is said with such disdain - as though having one were a curse. But, as the reverend was quick to point out, putting down an ego is not the answer.

"The best way to handle it is not to suppress the ego but to extend the ego into objectively meaningful channels," he said. "And so many people are unhappy because they aren't doing anything. They're self-centered because they aren't doing anything. They haven't given themselves to anything and they just move around in their little circles."

Without much pause, the reverend continued his sermon - his voice a mixture of intense power and quiet serenity.

"One of the ways to rise above this self-centeredness is to move away from self and objectify yourself in something outside of yourself," he said. "Find some great cause and some great purpose, some loyalty to which you can give yourself and become so absorbed in that something that you give your life to it."

The reverend went on to say men and women have found a higher purpose or calling throughout all generations, across borders and through boundaries of race, sex and religion. The drive to do this is something greater than a need to channel one's ego, it becomes a calling.

"We look through history. We see that biography is a running commentary of this," he said. "We see a Wilberforce. We see him somehow satisfying his desire by absorbing his life in the slave trade, those who are victims of the slave trade. We see a Florence Nightingale. We see her finding meaning and finding a sense of belonging by giving herself to a great cause, to the un-nursed wounded."

The reverend continued.

"We see an Albert Schweitzer who looks at men in dark Africa who have been the victims of colonialism and imperialism and there he gives his life to that. He objectifies himself in this great cause. And then we can even find Jesus totally objectifying himself when he cries out, 'Ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.'"

We also saw Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. standing behind the pulpit of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Aug. 11, 1957. We saw him, just six years into the future, carry his message to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., where he shared his dream with more than 200,000 civil rights supporters. And tragically, we saw that dream cut short when he was assassinated by James Earl Ray at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968. He was only 39.

King believed in something greater than himself. He believed people had a choice between serving one's own desires and ambitions, and serving something greater - something higher. King believed service, not servitude, was the key to our future. As he stood in that church, on what was an unbearably hot day, King shared that belief, centered on the question life poses to all people, with any who would listen.

"Every person must decide at some point whether they will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness," King said. "This is the judgment: 'Life's most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?"