DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


MLK And Why I Write About Spirituality

Surprisingly, through all the talk about MLK we've heard today, there's one aspect of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. we aren't hearing that much about:  the fact that he was a Christian.

Yes, believe it or not, he had that "Dr." at the beginning of his name because he had a doctorate in theology.  Yes, he spent some time leading civil rights protests, but he spent much more time being a preacher.

Okay, maybe you knew that part.  But what we really don't hear about often is that King's Christianity was rooted in his personal spiritual experience.

When discussing his spirituality, people usually say King was influenced by Christ's or Gandhi's "philosophy" -- as if, based on a sober assessment of their logic and evidence, King concluded their ideas were sound -- but they don't touch on what King saw as his firsthand encounter with the divine.

MLK's Epiphany

I've read and listened to a lot about King, but I only recently heard this story.  One night in 1956, King's struggle was taking its toll, and he was feeling tired and defeated.  Sitting at his kitchen table, he started praying out loud.  Suddenly, he "experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before."

"It seemed as though," he wrote in Stride Toward Freedom, "I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying:  'Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.'  Almost at once my fears began to go.  My uncertainty disappeared.  I was ready to face anything."  This experience convinced him to stay on his course, and become the leader he became.

When reading about this event, it struck me that this would be a great story to tell the people I know and read who scoff at spiritual practice, and say it's a waste of time.  "Why spend all that time meditating or praying?  Why not go out and do some good in the real world?" they ask.

Some Crazy Ideas

Here's a controversial thought:  what if the very idea of "goodness" has its roots in spiritual experiences like King's?  In other words, what if we wouldn't even have any sense of what it means to "do good," without the guidance of people who have had personal encounters with divinity?

The founders of the great religious traditions -- Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, and so on -- are all said to have had life-changing shifts in their consciousness that convinced them of their calling.  These figures' spiritual experiences inspired the teachings and behavior they brought into the world, which in turn created much of what we now call "morality" and "ethics."  At least, so some say.

And how about another crazy idea:  what if the very purpose of spiritual practice -- meditation, prayer, chanting, and so on -- is to bring about that same state of consciousness?  To give the everyday person access to the compassion, inner strength, and sense of universal interconnectedness that drove people like King to accomplish what they did?

If spiritual practice can do that for us -- and, in the interest of full disclosure, I believe it can -- I think it's actually one of the best uses we can make of our time.


The Responsibility Ethic, Part 5: The Politics of Responsibility


This is the final installment in my series on what I've been calling the "responsibility ethic" in personal development -- the notion that it's best to see ourselves as responsible for our life circumstances, as opposed to seeing our situation as the product of chance or forces beyond our control.

Today, I'll address an argument often made by critics of personal growth that has to do with the relationship between the responsibility ethic and politics.  This is a complicated argument, but I think it's an important one, so bear with me as I flesh it out a little.

Is The Responsibility Ethic Anti-Political?

The critics argue that, if I believe I'm responsible for my circumstances, I am unlikely to participate in politics -- to vote, protest, debate issues with others, and so on.  In other words, if I think I hold the power to change my life situation, I won't see any need to use the political process to improve my circumstances.

Say, for instance, that I run a business, and a tax imposed by the city is hurting my bottom line.  If I believe I have full control over my destiny, I won't see any reason to lobby the city government to reduce the tax.  After all, because I have the power to fix the situation, I can solve the problem myself -- by, say, moving elsewhere, or just increasing my revenues to make up for the loss.

To the critics, because it convinces people there's no need to participate in politics, the responsibility ethic is anti-democratic, in that it discourages an informed, politically active public.  What's more, the critics argue, we do need the political process to change aspects of our life situation.  Critics with a left-wing bent commonly argue that only the government can remedy the economic unfairness in our society, and the responsibility ethic blinds the "have-nots" to this by deceiving them into thinking they, individually, can solve their financial problems.

Thus, they might say, the responsibility ethic serves as a kind of "opiate for the masses."  As sociologist Micki McGee writes, personal growth teachings tend to trap their followers in a futile "cycle of seeking individual solutions to problems that are social, economic, and political in origin."

Clearing Up Some Confusion

Simply put, I think this argument misunderstands the responsibility ethic.  All the responsibility ethic says is that I am responsible for the situation I'm in, and I have the ability to change that situation if I wish to do so.  It does not address the specific actions I should take to improve my situation, or whether "political action" is a good option.

We can understand this by returning to my earlier example, where my city imposes a tax I think is bad for my business.  If I accept the responsibility ethic, I will believe I'm capable of improving this situation.  But the question remains:  what is the best way to change it?  Should I move to another city?  Try to increase my revenue?  Lobby the city council to repeal the tax?  The responsibility ethic is silent on this issue.

In other words, it doesn't follow from my belief that I can improve the situation that political activity will not be an effective method of doing so.  Supporting a politician who pledges to repeal the tax might indeed be an effective method of getting what I want.  Thus, I think it's a mistake to cast the responsibility ethic as inherently anti-political.

The Politics of "Non-Responsibility"

This becomes even clearer when we consider the extreme opposite of the responsibility ethic, which I'll call the "non-responsibility ethic."  A person who accepts the non-responsibility ethic (in other words, someone with an external locus of control) sees events in their lives as the product of luck, or of forces they can't control.

Suppose I believe in the non-responsibility ethic, and I'm faced with the same situation where the city tax is hurting my business.  If I believe my actions are unlikely to make a difference, what will I do to improve my situation?  If I really think I'm a helpless pawn of fate, I'll probably do nothing.

As this example illustrates, it's also a mistake to call the responsibility ethic inherently politically conservative, as left-wing critics of personal growth tend to do.  If these critics want to see more redistribution of wealth, it won't help them to have a nation of people with an external locus of control who feel powerless to change the status quo.

In light of this, it's no surprise that some of the most popular personal growth books use political leaders to illustrate their ideas.  Even the much-maligned Think and Grow Rich cites Gandhi as "one of the most astounding examples known to civilization of the possibilities of faith."  Gandhi's faith in his ability to change the world, writes Napoleon Hill, drove his contribution to ending British rule of India.

The Psychology of Responsibility

I won't harp too much on the psychological evidence, because I've done it a lot in past posts.  Suffice it to say that several psychological studies have suggested that people with an internal locus of control -- a belief in their own capacity to affect events -- are actually more inclined to participate in politics.

For example, one study surveyed some newly voting-aged college students, and found that the ones who described themselves as having an internal locus of control were more likely to vote in a presidential election.  Another found that people who tended toward an internal locus of control were more likely to participate in political activism.

In other words, it seems that a person's belief that they're responsible for their circumstances leads them to be more politically active, not less, which also belies the critics' claim that the responsibility ethic is somehow anti-political.

In my next post, because I find this issue fascinating, I'll talk more generally about the political implications of personal growth and spirituality.

Other posts in this series:

  • The Responsibility Ethic, Part 1: Self-Blame
  • The Responsibility Ethic, Part 2: Responsibility Vs. Blame
  • The Responsibility Ethic, Part 3: Guilt And Morality
  • The Responsibility Ethic, Part 4: Responsibility And Compassion