Dr. Martin Luther King, a civil rights icon and prolific intellectual, addressed the topic of disappointment in a sermon he preached in 1962 entitled “Shattered Dreams.” The main takeaway is that it’s that how we respond to life’s inevitable setbacks that makes all the difference in the world. You can find the complete transcript at the King Institute (here). Below are a few highlights from the sermon that I found particularly compelling. I’ve designed it such that if you read from top to bottom you will come away with a solid grasp of the entire sermon. Dr. King undoubtedly had a way with words, but his ideas resonate even more powerfully.
Our sermon today brings us face to face with one of the most agonizing problems of human experience. Very few, if any, of us are able to see all of our hopes fulfilled. So many of the hopes and promises of our mortal days are unrealized. Each of us, like Shubert, begins composing a symphony that is never finished. There is much truth in George Frederick Watts’ imaginative portrayal of Hope in his picture entitled Hope. He depicts Hope as seated atop our planet, but her head is sadly bowed and her fingers are plucking one unbroken harp string. Who has not had to face the agony of blasted hopes and shattered dreams?
It is quite possible for one to seek to deal with this problem by distilling all his frustrations into a core of bitterness and resentment of spirit. The persons who follow this path develop a hardness of attitude and a coldness of heart. They develop a bitter hatred for life itself. In fact, hate becomes the dominant force in their lives. They hate God, they hate the people around them, and they hate themselves. Since they can’t corner God or life, they take out their vengeance on other people. If they are married they are extremely cruel to their mate. If they have children, they treat them in the most inhuman manner. When they are not beating them, they are screaming at them; and when they are not screaming at them, they are cursing them. In short, they are mean. They love nobody and they demand no love. They trust no one and do not expect anyone to trust them. They find fault in everything and everybody. They always complain. You have seen people like this. They are cruel, vindictive and merciless.
Another possible reaction to the experience of blasted hopes is for the individuals to withdraw completely into themselves. They become absolute introverts. They allow no one to come into their lives and they refuse to go out to others. Such persons give up in the struggle of life. They lose the zest for living. They attempt to escape the disappointments of life by lifting their minds to a transcendent realm of cold indifference. Detachment is the word that may describe them. They are too unconcerned to love and they are too passionless to hate. They are too detached to be selfish and too lifeless to be unselfish. They are too indifferent to experience moments of joy and they are too cold to experience moments of sorrow.16 In short, such people are neither dead nor alive; they merely exist. Their eyes behold the beauties of nature, and yet they do not see them. Their ears are subjected to the majestic sounds of great music, and yet they do not hear it. Their hands gently touch a charming little baby, and yet they do not feel him. There is nothing of the aliveness of life left in them; there is only the dull motion of bare existence. Their disappointed hope leads them to a crippling cynicism.
Another way that people respond to life’s disappointments is to adopt a philosophy of fatalism. This is the idea that whatever happens must happen, and that all events are determined by necessity. Fatalism implies something foreordained and inescapable. The people who subscribe to The this philosophy follow a course of absolute resignation. They resign themselves to what they consider their fate. They see themselves as little more than helpless orphans thrown out in the terrifying immensities of space. Since they believe that man has no freedom, they seek neither to deliberate nor to make decisions. They wait passively for external forces to deliberate and decide for them. They never actively seek to change their circumstances, since they believe that all circumstances, like the Greek tragedies, are controlled by irresistible and foreordained forces. Often the fatalists are very religious people who see God as the determiner and controller of destiny. Everything, they feel, is God’s will, however evil it happens to be.
For one to sink in the quicksands of this type of fatalism is both intellectually and psychologically stifling. Since freedom is a part of the essence of man, the fatalist, in his denial of freedom, becomes a puppet and not a person. He is right in his conviction that there is no absolute freedom, and that freedom always operates within the framework of predestined structure. Thus a man is free to go north from Atlanta to Washington or South from Atlanta to Miami. But he is not free to go north to Miami or South to Washington. Freedom is always within destiny. But there is freedom. We are both free and destined. Freedom is the act of deliberating, deciding and responding within our destined nature.
But even more, fatalism is based on a terrible conception of God. It sees everything that happens, evil and good alike, as the will of God. Any healthy religion will rise above the idea that God wills evil. It is true that God has to permit evil in order to preserve the freedom of man. But this does not mean that he causes it. That which is willed is intended, and the idea that God intends for a child to be born blind, or that God gives cancer to this person and inflicts insanity upon another is rank heresy. Such a false idea makes God into a devil rather than a loving Father. So fatalism is a tragic and dangerous way to deal with the problem of unfulfilled dreams.
What, then, is the answer? We must accept our unwanted and unfortunate circumstance and yet cling to a radiant hope. The answer lies in developing the capacity to accept the finite disappointment and yet cling to the infinite hope. In speaking of acceptance, I do not mean the grim, bitter acceptance of those who are fatalistic. I mean the kind of acceptance that Jeremiah achieved as expressed in the words, “this is my grief and I must bear it.”
This means sitting down and honestly confronting your shattered dream. Don’t follow the escapist method of trying “to put it out of your mind.” This will lead to repression which is always psychologically injurious. Place it at the forefront of your mind and stare daringly at it. Then ask yourself, “how can I transform this liability into an asset?”. . . Almost anything that happens to us can be woven into the purposes of God. It may lengthen our cords of sympathy. It may break our self-centered pride. Even the cross, which was willed by wicked men, was woven by God into the redemption of the world.
Many of the world’s most influential characters have transformed their thorns into a crown. Charles Darwin was almost always physically ill. Robert Louis Stevenson was inflicted with tuberculosis. Helen Keller was blind and deaf. But they did not respond to these conditions with bitter resentment and grim fatalism. Rather they stood up to life, and, through the exercise of a dynamic will, transformed a negative into a positive. [George Frideric] Handel confronted the most difficult and trying circumstances in his life. Says his biographer: “His health and his fortunes had reached the lowest ebb. His right side had become paralyzed, and his money was all gone. His creditors seized him and threatened him with imprisonment. For a brief time he was tempted to give up the fight—but then he rebounded again to compose the greatest of his inspirations, the epic “Messiah.”
In the final analysis our ability to deal creatively with shattered dreams and blasted hopes will be determined by the extent of our faith in God. A genuine faith will imbue us with the conviction that there is a God beyond time and a Life beyond Life. Thus we know that we are not alone in any circumstance, however dismal and catastrophic it may be. God dwells with us in life’s confining and oppressive cells. And even if we die there having not received the earthly promise, he will walk with us down that mysterious road called death, and lead us at last to that indescribable city that he has prepared for us. Let us never feel that God’s creative power is exhausted by this earthly life, and his majestic love is locked within the limited walls of time and space. This would be a strongly irrational universe if God did not bring about an ultimate wedding of virtue and fulfillment. This would be an absurdly absurdly meaningless universe if death turned out to a blind alley leading the human race into a state of nothingness. God, through Christ has taken the sting from death, and it no longer has dominion over us. This earthly life is merely an embryonic prelude to a new awakening, and death is an open door that leads us into life eternal.