Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the self

self portrait The language we use, the language we hear and read, the language we have become accustomed to is constantly being remodeled. And as this remodeling reshapes our day to day jargon, there are those who embrace it and others who look upon it with trepidation. Words that we once used in conversation before have either died out for lack of use, such as ‘thou”, while other words have been altered, such as ‘television’ is now simply ‘tv’. Quickly finding its way into our vernacular is a whole range of creative words mostly due to new technologies and ideas. Selfie, a more recent addition in English, was retailored from “self” to give rise to its meaning….the ability to instantly snap a picture of one’s self. And with this technological advancement, for surely it would be rather cumbersome to take a selfie if we had to prepare a tripod every time we had a whim, along with this adapted self-portraiture, comes the instantaneous ability to declare its arrival to the world.

The concept of self portraiture is not new for as long as there have been artists there have always been portrait painters. However, what is different in the twenty-first century is technology and its dominant place in all societies. Regardless of which hemisphere you live in, we have accrued a most powerful set of tools. Powerful in the sense that some may believe it has transformed much of society into being quite self-indulgent; self-absorbed, self-centered, and perhaps narcissist.

Harsh words… well perhaps, though words that should not be directed only towards the present for humanity has always taken a liking to itself. Perhaps the “selfie” today is yesterday’s “mirror”. Perhaps our inventive technology has been able to just magnify what we already suspected about society, perhaps technology is presenting us with a faster and closer look at what was always there; perhaps we are getting the same images of mankind and womankind now as ‘close-ups’ rather than ‘landscape’.

After all, are we so much more different than our ancestors? I suppose there is something to that old adage… “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree…”

mlk Today’s blog brings back a very great individual, the esteemed thinker: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968); a man widely regarded as America’s paramount advocate of nonviolence. Through his use of the words and acts of nonviolent resistance he was able to achieve seemingly-impossible goals. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist minister and social activist who led the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. In 1964 King received the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest person ever to receive this high honor. At the young age of 39, he was tragically assassinated, leaving behind a forever grieving nation.

I now offer to you a moment of time to read the words of a most honored man. From his Sermon Delivered in 1957 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama, “Conquering Self-Centeredness”…I present to you Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“…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. And this is one of the big problems of life, that so many people never quite get to the point of rising above self. And so they end up the tragic victims of self-centeredness. They end up the victims of distorted and disrupted personality.

Life has its beginning and its maturity comes into being when an individual rises above self to something greater. Few individuals learn this, and so they go through life merely existing and never living. … They start out, the minute you talk with them, talking about what they can do, what they have done. They’re the people who will tell you, before you talk with them five minutes, where they have been and who they know. They’re the people who can tell you in a few seconds, how many degrees they have and where they went to school and how much money they have. We meet these people every day. And so this is not a foreign subject. It is not something far off. It is a problem that meets us in everyday life. We meet it in ourselves, we meet in other selves: the problem of self-centeredness…

And the way to solve this problem is not to drown out the ego but to find your sense of importance in something outside of the self. And you are then able to live because you have given your life to something outside and something that is meaningful, objectified. You rise above this self-absorption to something outside… This is the way to go through life with a balance, with the proper perspective because you’ve given yourself to something greater than self…”

First image: A.K. Kuznetsov, standing inside greenhouse with a tripod-mounted camera, as seen through his reflected image in a mirrored sphere, ca. 1885.

Esteemed thinker: William Hazlitt

Characters in a literary work are those persons or things that carry out the action the author has executed. They are the change agents of a story; the personalities that interact to weave a good tale. However, when we think of someone’s attributes, may they be considered good or bad, then we also are thinking of the word character. This one, the moral or ethical quality of an individual however, is much less easy to establish. For even though we may have known a person for a great while, just how well do we know their character?

Some believe that we can tell a man or woman’s character by looking into their eyes…as in the expression ‘the eyes are the windows to the soul’. The notion that we can detect one’s deep thoughts, decipher what makes a person tick, all with a casual glance is indeed intriguing… yet it makes us wonder if this prescription is a fact or merely a romantic perception. In the 1800s, right about the time photography was coming into the hands of ordinary folks, photographers such as the great Matthew Brady set their sights on portraiture to show a person’s noble character and Samuel G. Szabó who believed physical characteristics of the criminal psyche could be discerned through photography.

And then there are some who claim they can divulge a man or woman’s true character by the company they keep. At first blush this seems like logical reasoning for if one’s friends are scrupulous and trustworthy, then it would be fair to assume that the character of said individual would too be conscientious and honest. However, does that mean as we travel in and out of relationships the integrity of our character is examined with such fine tuned scrutiny that our traits would to be judged fickle like the disposition of a hungry bear? Vicious before it eats, but then when fully satisfied it is content and resumes in peaceful slumber. Is it possible then to postulate that a person can impersonate a different character and like a chameleon that can camouflage its appearance to suit its surroundings so too can the character be so easily disguised?

Alas then, how can we determine if human nature is designed to be a good judge of character? A man or woman in a relationship is often blind to the disposition of the attracted mate; even though others around see quite clearly that there is…shall we say…a marked flaw. And as time passes, a revelation appears, but not to anyone’s surprise…for like finding bones in a cemetery…sometimes we do not have to dig too deep to uncover the true character of a person.

William Hazlitt Today’s blog presents esteemed thinker: William Hazlitt (1778-1830). Born in Kent, England; he was an essayist, painter, and philosopher. Though he is a relatively an unknown to the 21st century reader, he was considered a great prose writer and important critic of the early 19th century’s Romantic period, making original contributions to appreciation of art, theatre, literature and philosophy. His essays could fill twenty volumes, making him one of England’s most prolific writers. Hazlitt was also a controversial journalist who, at the expense of his own chances for advancement, defended a radical stance that was actively persecuted in his day; an attack on the privileged and monarchy.

I now bid you good reading as you take time to venture into the prose of William Hazlitt. Take time and please do dally…for your full attention will not be wasted as I bring to you a snippet from an essay in his book Table Talk.

“ON THE KNOWLEDGE OF CHARACTER “
“It is astonishing, with all our opportunities and practice, how little we know of this subject. For myself, I feel that the more I learn, the less I understand it… There are various ways of getting at a knowledge of character—by looks, words, actions. The first of these, which seems the most superficial, is perhaps the safest, and least liable to deceive: nay, it is that which mankind, in spite of their pretending to the contrary, most generally go by. Professions pass for nothing, and actions may be counterfeited; but a man cannot help his looks. ‘Speech,’ said a celebrated wit, ‘was given to man to conceal his thoughts.’ Yet I do not know that the greatest hypocrites are the least silent. The mouth of Cromwell is pursed up in the portraits of him, as if he was afraid to trust himself with words. Lord Chesterfield advises us, if we wish to know the real sentiments of the person we are conversing with, to look in his face, for he can more easily command his words than his features. A man’s whole life may be picture painted of him by a great artist would probably stamp his true character on the canvas, and betray the secret to posterity…

I shall not say much of friendship as giving an insight into character, because it is often founded on mutual infirmities and prejudices. Friendships are frequently taken up on some sudden sympathy, and we see only as much as we please of one another’s characters afterwards. Intimate friends are not fair witnesses to character, any more than professed enemies. They cool, indeed, in time, part, and retain only a rankling grudge of past errors and oversights. Their testimony in the latter case is not quite free from suspicion.

One would think that near relations, who live constantly together, and always have done so, must be pretty well acquainted with one another’s characters. They are nearly in the dark about it. Familiarity confounds all traits of distinction: interest and prejudice take away the power of judging…”

First images selected from Metropolitan Museum in NYC: “Rogues, a Study of Characters “1860; photographer Samuel G. Szabó