wise guys king, kliban & kearns converse with everyman dobson in observance of aids-write.org’s first birthday (320)
i want to use as the subject from which to preach: “the three dimensions of a complete life.” (all right) you know, they used to tell us in hollywood that in order for a movie to be complete, it had to be three-dimensional. well, this morning i want to seek to get over to each of us that if life itself is to be complete, (yes) it must be three-dimensional.
many, many centuries ago, there was a man by the name of john who found himself in prison out on a lonely, obscure island called patmos. (right, right) and i’ve been in prison just enough to know that it’s a lonely experience. (that’s right) and when you are incarcerated in such a situation, you are deprived of almost every freedom, but the freedom to think, the freedom to pray, the freedom to reflect and to meditate. and while john was out on this lonely island in prison, (that’s right) he lifted his vision to high heaven (all right, he did) and he saw, descending out of heaven, a new heaven (all right) and a new earth. (that’s right) over in the twenty-first chapter of the book of revelation, it opens by saying, “and i saw a new heaven and a new earth. (all right) and i john saw the holy city, the new jerusalem, (all right) coming down from god out of heaven.” (oh yeah)
and one of the greatest glories of this new city of god that john saw was its completeness. (that’s right) it was not up on one side and down on the other, (all right) but it was complete in all three of its dimensions. (yes) and so in this same chapter as we looked down to the sixteenth verse, john says, “the length and the breadth (he did, he did) and the height of it are equal.” (yes, sir) in other words, this new city of god, this new city of ideal humanity is not an unbalanced entity, (no) but is complete on all sides. (yes) now i think john is saying something here in all of the symbolism of this text and the symbolism of this chapter. he’s saying at bottom that life as it should be and life at its best (yeah) is a life that is complete on all sides. (that’s right) . . .
excerpts from: three dimensions of a complete life
by martin luther king, jr.
when i first started getting to know peter dobson at aids.org, when we were nailing down the ideas that would eventually become aids-write.org, (and started out as “on the engines of enlightenment: journal of an aids shaman”) i remember peter brought a notebook with him to our long lunches with too much coffee on the breezy and royal blue eversummer porch at the french market.
peter was organized like that. notes, resource documents, calendars, moral coaching, phone numbers, whatnot, all in one place. i’d just throw everything into my english-professor / personal-trainer black canvas bag.
at the time, peter kept a kliban cartoon in the clear plastic sleeve on the cover of his notebook. this was it:
“it’s sort of a reminder for me,” peter said when he showed it to me for the first time. we had been talking about enlightenment. peter slid his water-glass-cum-lemon-slice-and-mint-and-ice around in small, nervous circles in the puddle of its sweat, there on the tabletop. “we’re all looking for enlightenment, maybe finding it, and even so, i still want to measure it, still want to know how big it is, how wide it is, how deep it is. even though i know those things are meaningless—i can’t help myself. it’s the way i am—part geek, i guess.” he laughs.
peter works hard and honestly at being self-effacing. know your weaknesses. i admire him for it.
but it seemed to me at that moment that his impulse to measure was a strength. i have struggled to explain it to him since then, and finally decided to post excerpts from the mlk sermon his comments recalled for me, one of martin’s more lyric and far-ranging sermons/poems, called “three dimensions of a complete life.”
another photograph etched in my memory
and there are three dimensions of any complete life to which we can fitly give the words of this text: length, breadth, and height. (yes) [my bulleting below—rk]
• now the length of life as we shall use it here is the inward concern for one’s own welfare. (yes) In other words, it is that inward concern that causes one to push forward, to achieve his own goals and ambitions. (all right)
• the breadth of life as we shall use it here is the outward concern for the welfare of others. (all right)
• and the height of life is the upward reach for god. (all right)
now you got to have all three of these to have a complete life. . . .
let’s turn for the moment to the length of life. . . . after accepting ourselves and our tools, we must discover what we are called to do. (oh yeah) and once we discover it we should set out to do it with all of the strength and all of the power that we have in our systems. (yeah) and after we’ve discovered what god called us to do, after we’ve discovered our life’s work, we should set out to do that work so well that the living, the dead, or the unborn couldn’t do it any better. (oh yeah)
now this does not mean that everybody will do the so-called big, recognized things of life. very few people will rise to the heights of genius in the arts and the sciences; very few collectively will rise to certain professions. most of us will have to be content to work in the fields and in the factories and on the streets. but we must see the dignity of all labor. (that’s right) . . .
so I move on and say that it is necessary to add breadth to length. now the breadth of life is the outward concern for the welfare of others, as i said. (yeah) and a man has not begun to live until he can rise above the narrow confines of his own individual concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity. (all right)
one day jesus told a parable. You will remember that parable [–the good samaritan —rk]. . . . (oh yeah) and that parable ends up saying that this good samaritan was a great man; he was a good man because he was concerned about more than himself. (oh yeah) . . .
i say to you this morning that the first question that the . . . levite asked was, ‘if i stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” (that’s right) but the good samaritan came by and he reversed the question. not “what will happen to me if i stop to help this man?” but “what will happen to this man if i do not stop to help him?” this was why that man was good and great. he was great because he was willing to take a risk for humanity; he was willing to ask, “what will happen to this man?” not “what will happen to me?” (all right) . . .
and don’t forget in doing something for others that you have what you have because of others. (yes, sir) don’t forget that. we are tied together in life and in the world. (preach, preach) and you may think you got all you got by yourself. (not all of it) but you know, before you got out here to church this morning, you were dependent on more than half of the world. (that’s right) you get up in the morning and go to the bathroom, and you reach over for a bar of soap, and that’s handed to you by a frenchman. you reach over for a sponge, and that’s given to you by a turk. you reach over for a towel, and that comes to your hand from the hands of a pacific islander. and then you go on to the kitchen to get your breakfast. you reach on over to get a little coffee, and that’s poured in your cup by a south american. (tat’s right) or maybe you decide that you want a little tea this morning, only to discover that that’s poured in your cup by a chinese. (yes) or maybe you want a little cocoa, that’s poured in your cup by a west african. (yes) then you want a little bread and you reach over to get it, and that’s given to you by the hands of an english-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. (that’s right) before you get through eating breakfast in the morning, you’re dependent on more than half the world. (that’s right) that’s the way god structured it; that’s the way god structured this world. so let us be concerned about others because we are dependent on others. (oh yeah) . . .
but don’t stop here either. (no, sir) you know, a lot of people master the length of life, and they master the breadth of life, but they stop right there. now if life is to be complete, we must move beyond our self-interest. we must move beyond humanity and reach up, way up for the god of the universe, whose purpose changeth not. (right) . . .
you may not be able to define god [or good for that matter—rk] in philosophical terms. men through the ages have tried to talk about him. (yes) plato said that he was the architectonic good. aristotle called him the unmoved mover. hegel called him the absolute whole. then there was a man named paul tillich who called him being-itself. we don’t need to know all of these high-sounding terms. (yes) maybe we have to know him and discover him another way. (oh yeah) one day you ought to rise up and say, “i know him because he’s a lily of the valley.” (yes) he’s a bright and morning star. (yes) he’s a rose of sharon. he’s a battle-axe in the time of babylon. (yes) and then somewhere you ought to just reach out and say, “he’s my everything. he’s my mother and my father. he’s my sister and my brother. he’s a friend to the friendless.” this is the god of the universe. and if you believe in him and worship him, something will happen in your life. you will smile when others around you are crying. [an ambiguous response—rk] this is the power of god.
go out this morning. love yourself, and that means rational and healthy self-interest. you are commanded to do that. that’s the length of life. then follow that: love your neighbor as you love yourself. you are commanded to do that. that’s the breadth of life. and i’m going to take my seat now by letting you know that there’s a first and even greater commandment: “love the lord thy god with all thy heart, (yeah) with all thy soul, with all thy strength.” i think the psychologist would just say with all thy personality. and when you do that, you’ve got the breadth of life.
and when you get all three of these together, you can walk and never get weary. you can look up and see the morning stars singing together, and the sons of god shouting for joy. when you get all of these working together in your very life, judgement will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
“the nature of goodness”—my suggested term today for what king calls “god”— bkliban’s “nothingness”—is as measurable as it is unknowable; neither one nor the other is more or less likely to reveal it. so i say measure it. touch it. pace it out. taste it. embrace it.
look in the concrete. you’re as likely to find a mirror there as anywhere else.
bkliban reminds us there are other problems that could be worse.