MLK: The Drum Major Instinct

FeaturedMLK: The Drum Major Instinct

Fifty-three years ago Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a prophetic sermon he called the The Drum Major Instinct. He riffed off a passage in the New Testament where Jesus’ disciples got mad at him because they wanted to be credentialed leaders, to be praised for their importance, the “drum major instinct”.  In the 1940s the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson, wrote in the Twelve Steps that this desire for an important place in society, the “social” instinct, is necessary for community survival. Both men cautioned that this natural god-given instinct, unbridled, can turn on us, become an obsession for power and supremacy and eventually distort our personalities. 

I know a bit about the desire for attention. During these pandemic shutdown months, online Zoom meetings have become the stage and meeting room for events. Last month I was the featured speaker in one square among nearly five hundred muted souls on Zoom. At the end all I heard was thank you from the host. People wrote kindly in the Chat but I still wish I could hear that applause. My book was published in October 2020 and the enthusiasm I need to promote it has waned, due to—you got it—no applause.

Donald Trump heard a lot of applause throughout his entire presidency, even during the months most of us followed the stay-at-home orders of Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force leaders. Whew! Trump’s drum-major instinct has rampaged so out of control that he still says the Democrats stole the election he lost to Joe Biden.

MLK:  “… the final great tragedy of the distorted personality is that when one fails to harness this instinct, he ends up trying to push others down in order to push himself up…by spreading evil, vicious, lying gossip on people…”

Trump spread evil, vicious lies to his duped white followers continually until they finally exploded into a blood-and-guts frenzy on January 6. They sacked the US Capitol in an effort to thwart the official declaration of the election results. Five people died. King nailed this aberrant behavior in a prescient accusation: his drum-major instinct makes him think he is somebody big because he is white. 

MLK and Bill Wilson remind us we all have the drum-major instinct. We all want the admiration of others. They caution us to keep it in check, to watch out we don’t let our drum-major emotions go awry, that we don’t act superior to others. I confess I do feel and act superior to the insurrectionists, the white fundamentalists, the angry male mob who sieged the Capitol. I condemn them in conversation, even post condemnations on social media. Experience tells me if I don’t stop, I’ll soon be in a full blown mire of self-loathing, questioning how I got there. King and Wilson both offer an ancient solution to keep my own potential soul-sick personality at bay. Love and service. Be a drum major for love. Help others.

I’m open to it. That’s the best I can do today.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

The Drum Major Instinct,” Sermon Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King, Jr., February 4, 1968, Atlanta, Ga. Listen Here: http://okra.stanford.edu/media/audio/DrumMajorInstinct.mp3

My book, “In That Number” is available at ReganBurke.com, Amazon.com or in your favorite independent bookstore.

Is Zoom a Reliable Alibi?

One of the joys of the Shutdown has been discovering crime dramas on what used to be mysterious and unclicked words on my TV screen. The series of murder mysteries on MHZ, Hulu, Britbox and Acorn are not necessarily formulaic, but they have one major scene in common: the detective always asks if the suspect was elsewhere on the night of; and if there are witnesses to the alibi.

I had an alibi last Sunday. The Shutdown service at my church was livestreamed into an adequate eleven-inch computer screen propped up on the desk in my bedroom. The sermon struck the taut chords in my silent mouth and unclapped hands. I needed a collection of witnesses to shout “Amen!” to Pastor Shannon’s sermon. But I was alone, looking out the elsewhere window weeping over the no-one. No one to join in a standing ovation, no one to see and no one to see me.

After the sermon I sang along with the tinny music emanating from the computer; an old hymn I love:

Live into hope of captives freed

From chains of fear or want or greed.

God now proclaims our full release

To faith and hope and joy and peace.

Halfway through I shuttered with a renewed and deeper knowing that I’d never attend a church service in person again. The pandemic Shutdown will hold me captive in chains of fear until the end of my days. Groups, especially singing groups are out of the question for my old bones in these non-vaccine days. 

I won’t observe Pastor Matt’s infant grow from a toddler to a Sunday schooler. He’ll never again see me ooh and ahh in the delight of his fatherhood. I’ll never sneak into an early morning service in my pajamas (hidden under a long winter coat), to hear Pastor Rocky again. And he’ll never see me admiring him in the way of a proud mother. Gabrielle and I will never again join arms, run up to Pastor Shannon after the service and proclaim our undying gratitude for her ministry. And she will never see the reflected glow of our admiring faces in the pews.

crrub140320Albert Einstein once posed a question to a fellow physicist, “Do you really believe that the moon only exists if you look at it?” It’s a common philosophical question, similar to
the sophomoric, “if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?”. In morning meditation I intentionally ask myself if I’m hearing sound or “thoughts of sound” as a way to go deeper, where there is no sound.

Intentional solitude is not the same however as the feelings of isolation that arise from the existential supposing, “If I’m neither heard nor seen, do I exist?” Responding to covid requires an abrupt “so long” to a group existence I wasn’t ready to leave. In an alternate elsewhere life, witnesses see and hear me on Zoom.

Is this a reliable alibi?

 

Life in the Shut-Down Lane

 

Going? Not going? A single day passed and no matter the destination whether Walgreen’s or Mexico, the decision was made for me. I’m not going. No one’s going. No one’s going anywhere. 

The questions alone open an empty space in my head that fills quickly with a laugh, a giant cosmic laugh that says, “You used to have a choice!” Now there’s no dilemma about where to go, who to see, what to do, what time to do it. 

Today, I am my existence. I maintain my essence built over a lifetime; fretful sleep, overeating, wasteful showers, obsessive reading, TV ’til two a.m. And, I build anew. I make tuna salad sandwiches, stir-fry zucchini with onions and go to meetings on Zoom. Henry the dog and I walk to new places like Michigan Avenue where we give six-foot hellos to neighbors we don’t know, will probably never know. In an unfamiliar park I break the law, unleashing him to run the crunchy March earth. We’re lulled into concluding some rules no longer apply. He trees squirrels. I hear a woodpecker

2148C23E-1940-4F0A-8931-D36076E8D4AD
Henry Sheltering in Place

(tomorrow binoculars). T.S. Eliot wrote “Time past and time future what might have been and what has been point to one end, which is always present.” I have time on my hands. It cannot be washed off, nor sanitized away.

Child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim believed fairy tales help children cope with their existential anxieties and dilemmas. I’m grateful for my new-found fairy tales on Acorn and Netflix. They’re satisfying, even intoxicating. “Vera” quenches my thirst for relief from today’s threat of a mad virus loosed on an unprepared society. She always catches the killer, within one episode. And “West Wing”’s President Jed Bartlett reassures me, “There are times when we’re fifty states and there are times when we are one country and have national needs.” Fairly tales are indeed a good shield.

A friend yelled at me on the phone, “I just want to go to a restaurant!” 

Who doesn’t? I live in cafe society— exchanging gossip, ideas, medical records and laughs in half-public coffee shops, restaurants, hotel lobbies, church halls, run-ins at shops and malls. It’s part of my essence, my existential cover, a baby blanket of being. I need it. 

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” said Blaise Pascal whose health problems left him no choice but to sit alone in quiet for long periods. He tried to solve some of humanity’s problems. Perhaps if he’d lived longer he’d have given us more than pensées.

To preserve my sanity, I usually sit quietly in a room for thirty minutes every day consciously telling myslef I do not own all of humanity’s problems, nor do they own me. But now that I’ve been sitting in a room alone for days, I’m concocting brilliant and crazy solutions to humanity’s problems. Pascal would be pleased, but I’m afraid I’ll go from here to the psych ward. 

Or run for office.