I am blessed to share my birthday with the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, who would have been 89 years-old today. I’ve always felt a kinship with Dr. King because of our shared birthdays, and have strived to emulate him in word and deed my whole life. This isn’t always easy to do, because unlike my best friend who shares a birthday with Hitler, my birthday has some pretty big shoes to fill.
Sometime ago, after the shiny of turning another year older wore off, (right around age 21), I began to evaluate my life, and thought hard about what I was giving back to the world. I looked to my birthday-mate and wondered how he might have spent the past year I was gifted to have. That’s when I came up with the MLK Challenge.
Every year, beginning on my birthday, I promise myself that I will spend the new year performing an act of kindness, patience, tolerance or forgiveness for every year I’ve spent on earth. Some acts carry more weight than others, (kindness is especially easier than forgiveness), but I still strive for one act per one year of life.
I am 46 years-old today.
The challenge sounds easy enough in January. I have a whole year to help people with their groceries or reassure new mothers when their babies wail in restaurants. But by the time October comes, I begin looking everywhere for little old ladies to help cross the street. Mindfulness is a lot of work, so by the end of 2017 I had some very big challenges that remained undone. Here are the last three of the year:
OCTOBER: I challenged myself to be the bigger person when I decided to leave my job. The woman I worked for has very few redeemable qualities and is wholly unfit to run a company, so instead of the constant head-butting and blow-ups, I decided to simply part ways. My challenge wasn’t in leaving, but in not dragging this person’s name through the mud when asked by co-workers what happened, co-workers who I knew felt the same way toward her as I did. I was challenged not to disparage her to the companies she still had to work with who I knew favored me. I bit my tongue, gave professional reasons for leaving that did not call out her epic stupidity, and politely moved on. This woman did not do me the same service, and has since blasted me to anyone who will listen. It’s during those moments when I call on two of my favorite quotes for strength:
“Live your life so that when others speak badly of you, no one will believe it.”
“Have patience. In time, all truths will be revealed.”
I am not sure if my effort to be the bigger person falls under kindness, patience, tolerance or forgiveness. Maybe it’s all four. But when I think about Dr. King, and how he endured with dignity and grace so much more than an ignorant woman making him mad, I am both humbled and amazed.
NOVEMBER: This challenge of forgiveness was one I had never expected to attempt. My former step-mother was guilty of a lot of emotional abuse toward me growing up, and to say I despised her would be an understatement. She had attempted to friend me on Facebook over the years, and I dismissed her each time. I decided to step up to the challenge and forced myself to look at my childhood from her point of view. I examined her marriage to my father and her relationship to her own abusive mother. I began to have sympathy for all she had been forced to endure during her own childhood, and decided that forgiveness would be a gift I could give her. I do not anticipate an active friendship, but the hateful way I viewed her has now been replaced with understanding. I did not expect to find peace in this act, but I have.
DECEMBER: I hadn’t had any contact with my father for almost eight years. There was no abrupt fight, no particular action or statement that precipitated our estrangement, it just sort of happened. I had a lot of hurt feelings over my childhood, and put the blame almost entirely on him.
An amazing thing happens when you raise a teenage daughter who is eerily like yourself; you begin to feel bad for all you put your parents through growing up. I cannot count how many times I’ve called my mother to apologize for being belligerent as a teenager. I cringe when I think about it. I decided that this year would be the year I would offer that same apology to my father. I am so very glad I did.
It turns out he has not been well physically, and I very nearly lost him for good last year. He expressed regret and remorse for my childhood, and accepted blame for the past eight years apart. He never contacted me because he thought I hated him and didn’t blame me for the disconnect. That one hurt.
It frightens me to think that he might have died, not knowing that I had forgiven him some time ago, and that my inability or unwillingness to break the silence all these years could have been avoided with a single email; an email I am so very glad I challenged myself to send.
Now that 2018 is here, my first act is to challenge all of you to do the same. Not every challenge will bring you satisfaction, but you may just find a peace you hadn’t expected or a chance at a renewed relationship. And just like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, you will have left the world a better place than you found it.