This week we have been remembering the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In February 1968, just two months before he would be assassinated, he gave an address in Washington, DC, where he spoke these profound words:
“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
To say that King had faced many disappointments in his own life and particularly in his struggle for equality and justice is a gross understatement. From Montgomery to Birmingham to Selma, he encountered numerous setbacks that would have overwhelmed many to the point of giving up.
But King regarded these challenges, as difficult and often violent as they were, as “finite”—as moments in time that did not discourage him from working for his dream—a more just world.
How was he not overcome by these disappointments, even if they were finite? He never lost hope. Most emotional states—feelings like sadness, embarrassment, joy, excitement—are momentary, fleeting, and episodic. Hope is different. For King it is a way of being in the world—enduring despite circumstances.
For King this infinite hope was rooted in his faith. For others, it might be grounded in a sense of the inherent, if not always apparent, goodness of human beings. Regardless of one’s orientation to hope, it persists, it sustains, according to King, and it puts our disappointments and failures within the larger context of our desire for a better world.
As we begin a new year, we have most likely already encountered disappointments that could tempt us to give up on our dreams for ourselves, for the organizations we work for, for our communities and the people we serve. Be encouraged and be inspired by the example of King. View setbacks as part of the way forward.
This is not a naïve or pollyannish view of the world. Rather it is deeply realistic—that the disappointments of our lives are finite moments in the journey to what King called “the promise land.” Unfortunately, like Moses, he didn’t live to get there, and we are still struggling to realize his dream. To quote King again, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Be an agent of infinite hope this year! Don’t give up on the dreams you have to make our communities and each other better.