The Most Constructive Force in the Universe

As I struggle to remember to write and say the year “2021” I noticed the University of Iowa Health Care quotation selection by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr this month pertinent to the upcoming MLK Human Rights Week, starting January 18, 2021:

“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”

It’s funny because, as usual, the way my sense of humor works, I also recall quotes from the movie Men in Black 3. Agent K asks Agent J, “Do you know the most destructive force in the universe?” Agent J answers with a wisecrack, “Sugar?” Agent K replies, “Regret.”

Then what is the most constructive force in the universe? Dr. King thought it was love.

Since my retirement in July of last year, I’ve had a lot of time on my hands. It leaves me with too much time to reflect on my current life as a retired psychiatrist—and my past life as a consulting psychiatrist. As my thin veneer of authority, responsibility, and other lies I tell myself drop away, I become more aware of my flaws in both roles. I find deep holes in my identity as a person as my identity as a doctor fades. Just being a person who has a lot to learn about life despite being a psychiatrist—is hard. I have regrets and remorse. My sense of humor sometimes helps me get by.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and me in Vegas.

Regret can indeed be a destructive force. Though it’s similar to regret and painful, remorse could help me be a better person. It becomes more and more important that I find something constructive, both to do and to be.

 Maybe love is the most constructive force in the universe. Because quotes are sometimes misquoted and inaccurately attributed, I googled the quote “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.” I found the sermon from which I think the quote is derived on a Stanford University web site. It’s called the “Loving Your Enemies” sermon and it’s published in the book, A knock at midnight: inspiration from the great sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

There are YouTube and Vimeo videos of an audio recording of the sermon as well. The internet being what it is, you apply hyperlinks to these and other works at the risk of the links being broken at some point, which I have found and which might be due to uncertainty about whether the text of the sermon is in the public domain.

As an aside, I’m reminded of a quote variously attributed to Charles Schulz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and others: “I love mankind; it’s people I can’t stand.” This probably betrays my skepticism about the ability to love your enemies.

You know, it’s funny. I didn’t find the Dr. King quote, word for word, the first couple of times I scanned it in the Stanford University transcript. What I did was the thing most junior medical students do when they discover the vast load of information they have to memorize and digest. I scanned the sermon for the key words and didn’t see them.

Nor did I find it on the third read, in which I finally abandoned the scanning method and actually read the sermon. But I got the point.

If the Stanford version and my reading are accurate, what I found were probably the main ideas I needed to make sense of the sermon. King said that I have to look deep within myself first before attempting to understand anyone else, much less to love my enemies. I also would do well to look for the good in people who I judge are bad. Moreover, I gain nothing by trying to defeat my enemies. He even mentions the theories of psychologists and psychiatrists to support his profound conclusions. As I read them, I was acutely reminded of my shortcomings as a psychiatrist. You would think a psychiatrist would know how to analyze himself (and psychoanalysts do undergo analysis in training). I am not a psychoanalyst. But I am capable of reflection.

The exact quote might not be discoverable (at least to me) in King’s sermon. Nevertheless, the transformative and redemptive power of love is clearly expressed. The quote is distilled from the text of the sermon. That doesn’t mean that there might not be a different version of the sermon which could have contained each and every word. According to one writer, that may be the case. Perhaps it’s in the book, A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr.

What is more important for me at this time of my life is to accept that my search for the most constructive force in the universe will proceed in baby steps.

What I need to do is reflect on my own shortcomings and find ways to improve while avoiding making excuses. Stephen Covey said that we often blame our parents or our grandparents for our flaws. This was part of his three theories of determinism to explain man’s nature. Genetic determinism says I inherited my flaws from my grandparents (whom I never met), which implied my mistakes were encoded in my DNA. Psychic determinism supposedly explains what I got from my parents because of their mistakes in rearing me. Hmmm, I was exposed to fruitcake at Christmas. Environmental determinism implicates says that other people in my workplace, my school, my neighborhood or my country (politicians perhaps?) caused my flaws.

Covey disputed these ideas by the example of Viktor Frankl’s personal triumph over his experience as a prisoner in a Nazi death camp. His captors controlled his liberty to move about his environment. They could not control his freedom to choose what he thought and felt. He controlled his self-awareness, imagination, conscience, and independent will to draw meaning from his experience [The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: By Stephen R. Covey. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989].

How can I see the good in my enemies, despite their obvious flaws in comparison to my own angelic perfection? And how to avoid acting on the urge to defeat them, despite the reality that there have to be winners and losers at all levels in society, including elections, sports, cribbage (at which my wife regularly beats me)? Something tells me I’m getting off to a shaky start here.

I have to crawl before I can walk; I have to walk before I can run—before I fall flat on my face for the umpteenth time. Now more than any other time in my life, I must keep trying. I must get up and try again.

ADDENDUM January 11, 2021: I tried to access the King Library and Archives (KLA) today at The King Center website. There is a message indicating the KLA page is down indefinitely and redirects the reader to the Stanford University site noted above.

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