This week, I was moved to read two very different books. First, inspired by the MLK holiday weekend, I read a collection of Dr. King’s prayers. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, I felt a personal need to reread Ayn Rand’s classic, Atlas Shrugged.
If you are scratching your head and asking, “Why?” I understand. They are two of the most opposite thinkers imaginable. Dr. King describes a philosophy of bearing each other’s burdens and raising up the oppressed. Ayn Ryan talks about the mighty shrugging off the poor.
I was drawn to her book for two reasons. Part of its interest is the parallel to our current political environment. The novel heralds the wealthy, the haves of society, as the good people, or as the book calls them, “the innovators.” Alternatively, the poor are portrayed as giving no value back and are referred to as “looters.” The innovators believe that the government is stealing their money and redistributing it to the undeserving masses. They complain about bearing the weight of the rest of the world on their shoulders. While the novel was written in 1957, its words ring tragically true 60 years later.
The other reason I was drawn to the book is the title. In Greek mythology, Atlas, after being vanquished in battle, was sentenced to hold up the heavens on his shoulders. After the recent election battle, many of us have also felt the increasing weight of the world sinking down on our shoulders. While there are a myriad of things that contribute to that weight, such as money, work, relationships or health, much of the weight, at least for Americans, is the worry about what is next, what is to come. A new world, a new administration dawns in front of us. It’s one we don’t know much about; it’s one we can’t predict. And the unknown generates worry and fear — the heaviest of all weights.
At first glance, the title, Atlas Shrugged, offers some momentary comfort: the idea that we can shrug that weight off our shoulders. Yes, there are things we should shrug off like anger, hatred, doubt, or the worry and fear about what is next. However, today our focus must be on what we can’t put down. What we can’t shrug off. Things like justice, equality, dignity, and love; things at which the rich “innovators” in the novel would scoff, yet things for which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. died. The best lesson for today? Combine Ayn Rand’s title and Dr. King’s philosophy: Atlas Didn’t Shrug.
One of Dr. King’s prayers that I read was a spiritual plea he raised in 1956 after he received a phone call from a white supremacist who threated his life, his home, and his family. He prayed these words in the kitchen of his Montgomery, Ala., home: “Lord, I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
We all can find ourselves at the end of our powers, where we have nothing left, where we can’t face it alone, and where there’s no relief in sight. That was definitely true for Dr. King. His burden did not lift. Month after month, year after year, he faced the crushing weight of death threats, violence, hatred, and evil.
In 1963, five long years after that telephone call to his home in Montgomery, Dr. King delivered his powerful “I Have a Dream” speech on the mall in Washington — a moment of hope and joy and inspiration for all. A moment where one might believe that the weight had begun to lift. Yet, two short weeks later, Dr. King was presiding over the funeral of Yet, two short weeks later, Dr. King was presiding over the funeral of four little girls killed in the bombing of a Birmingham church.
Like us, Dr. King had to wonder — over and over — what lies ahead? What is next? But while the ultimate future of his dream was unclear, the path to that dream was not. His work was clear and so is ours.
Today, we face a world where justice is not sure, where civil rights warriors are disrespected by side-liners who never marched or fought, and where the fate of the poor leans dangerously close to the pages of Atlas Shrugged. As my friend Ken Sehested explained: “It has become too easy to revere the dreamer but renege on the dream.”
We must hold up the weight of righteousness, lift high the cross of justice, and stand firm under the heavy demands of equality, mercy, and love. And we have to do it every day.
President Barak Obama explained it in powerful, yet practical terms in his outgoing speech last week: “We need to be jealous guardians of our democracy … Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life. If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Stay at it.”
Perhaps the most important words from that quote are the last three: “stay at it.” No matter how heavy the weight feels, we must keep going. As Dr. King said: “If you can’t fly, run. If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl. But by all means, keep moving.”
We may be a people loaded down with what feels like an impossible burden, a post-election sentence even, but we must keep moving. We must keep supporting and holding up the work of justice. And we must never give up. For brothers and sisters, we are Atlas.
And Atlas did not shrug.