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January 9, 2017

Martin Luther King Day inspires thoughtful action

The moments that come to define a life can often only be seen in retrospect. Rarely do we find ourselves in the midst of choosing something while also knowing how it will shape us and the future. Perhaps this is why the questions which we pose as we frame our choices matter so much throughout the course of our experiences.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in a sermon titled “Three Dimensions of a Complete Life” that

Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or the darkness of destructive selfishness. This is the judgment. Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’

The notion of creative altruism opens possibilities as to how generosity might appear or function in each person’s life. This term also resonates with the work to which AmeriCorps members dedicate themselves—they give their time, energy, and spirit to developing programs to benefit society. They truly influence the communities where they serve, even if those impacts are not immediately obvious.

AmeriCorps members make the kind of impact that requires patience, creativity, and persistence; just like all things worth doing in life, this work takes time. The truth is, we are all a world unto ourselves, and the places where we overlap, intersect, and reverberate are impossible to fully measure or appreciate. I do know that what we do matters, although how it may matter is beyond what we can know in our lifetimes.

During my service last year (through a non-AmeriCorps program) working as a children’s program coordinator at a family shelter, I worried that my role did not feel impactful enough. The changes that I saw and the things I could do felt small in comparison with the overwhelming needs. It seemed like the difference I was making was only in the details, not in the larger narratives around me. I said this, once, to the woman who had served in my position the year before. We were walking in a park in Seattle, talking over how difficult the year had been, and how I longed for a sense of my work’s significance. She turned to me as we emerged from the park back into the bustle of cars on the street and asked,

What if there are only small things in life?

The question halted me, nestled itself into my consciousness in the weeks that followed, and compelled me to reframe the questions and expectations I’d been creating for myself.

My service never really got easier, but the way I understood it changed. Dr. King’s question embodied itself in new ways—doing what I could for others became taking responsibility for how I was present in my life. Perhaps it was not my job or anyone else’s to rewrite the grand themes of struggle and pain in the lives around me. Instead, I made a conscious effort to remember that my one true responsibility was how I handled myself, especially around difficult clients and misbehaving kids. I worked harder to keep my tone level even when a parent failed to speak civilly to me. I continued to pursue donations and museum passes for our kids with the understanding that the delight it would give them to go to a one-day summer camp or a free show would be brief—but that didn’t mean it didn’t matter.

Dr. King is remembered and honored for the remarkable, generous ideas and actions with which he lived his life. He was the rare sort of person who lived his ideals as fully as he expressed them, who impacted not only his own generation but those to follow. Every year on MLK Day, AmeriCorps members participate in a day of direct service to honor his life and demonstrate the power of citizen action.

Reading Partners‘ regional AmeriCorps members across the US plan activities that offer extra support to local organizations that continue to serve those in need even on a national holiday. They commit to a “day on” for service at sites like food banks, soup kitchens, national parks, and emergency shelters.

Moments of collective citizen action could not be more appropriate this January, which is also National Mentoring Month. My mentors are people like my mom, who teaches me how to love unconditionally; my high school English teacher, who guided me to my hunger to find meaning through language; and my friend and mentor through my last year of service, whose capacity for listening and profound honesty inspires me.

I don’t know if the kids at the shelter where I worked saw me as a mentor since our relationships were often so brief, but I advocated for them whenever I could, and it gave me joy when our fondness and appreciation for one another grew. I could be a positive adult in their lives, even as I learned the limits and the scope of my own role. I know that I felt an abiding persistence to keep asking questions, to find words which would remind me of who I am and how I long to live my life.

In the “Three Dimensions of a Complete Life,” Dr. King suggests that a wholly lived existence has length, breadth, and height. While I don’t always know how this looks in practice, I believe it means recognizing and acting on the oddly easy-to-forget truth that “We are all made to live together.”

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