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Martin Luther King: Depressed and Creatively Maladjusted

Why MLK Jr. was fueled by forces that have garnered little attention.

Every year, around Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Americans celebrate King's dream of racial equality. And each year, some wonder about those aspects of his life's work that have remained unfulfilled. Racial equality was only the first of King's three major social goals. The other two, on which he focused in the final years of his life, were aimed at poverty and war. King didn't just want desegregation; he wanted the government to be much more involved economically to help the poor, and he opposed U.S. military intervention in other countries like Vietnam.

This latter King—the antiwar, semi-socialist King—was deeply unpopular, so that at his death in 1968, polls indicated most Americans had a negative opinion of him. This dichotomy between the acceptable and unacceptable King is often noted, but what is not understood is a deeper question—the question of why King held those views.

The deeper attitude behind King's philosophy was his view that we should be "creatively maladjusted." King was explicit in a sermon on this topic: "Everybody passionately seeks to be well-adjusted," he said. "... but there are some things in our world to which men of good will must be maladjusted ... Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted." Psychiatrists and psychologists call "adjusted" the intention of fitting in, being accepted, "functioning" well. The average teenager is obsessed with being adjusted, but so are adults, more than we care to admit: the average corporate employee, the typical professor, intellectual, television pundit—they are all rewarded for being well-adjusted. But this kind of normal thinking, this conformism, is deadly to creativity. One never has a new idea; the past is the future; all problems become insoluble dilemmas.

King realized that to solve the problems of human life, especially the deepest problems—like racism, poverty, and war—we have to become, in a sense, abnormal. We have to stop going along; we have to stop accepting what everyone else believes. We have to become maladjusted if we are at all to become creative, and find that insoluble dilemmas often are the masks for other previously unrecognized problems with simple solutions.

King knew what it meant to be maladjusted, psychologically, because he was not normal, psychiatrically. He had multiple periods of severe depression, and twice made suicide attempts as a child. Near the end of his life, some of his staff tried to get him into psychiatric treatment, but he refused.

It is no criticism to say that King had severe depression, a psychiatric illness. Some research studies show that depression enhances empathy toward others, as well as realism in the assessment of one's circumstances. King's nonviolent resistance can be understood as a politics of radical empathy, an accepting of one's enemies as part and parcel of advancing one's own agenda. It meant not killing or committing violence even against one's worst enemy, because the goal was not to defeat the other but to change his attitudes. Racism was not a political problem to be outlawed; it was a psychological disease to be cured.

King, repeatedly depressed and sometimes suicidal, was familiar with psychological disease. And his specific disease may have helped him to be so extremely empathic, in his personal life and his politics, such that—to the rest of us normal, non-depressed humans—he seems almost superhuman, like the 30-foot monument of him recently erected in Washington, D.C.

But the saint is always a sinner; and what seems incredibly courageous and brave has roots that are not beyond the reach of the rest of us.

We just have to remember, on this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to be creatively maladjusted.

Note: Documentation about King's depression is provided in A First Rate Madness. As is the general policy of this blog outlined in my post on blog bullying, uncivil comments and personal taunting will be deleted.

More from Nassir Ghaemi M.D., M.P.H.
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