January 12, 2024

What Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Understood about Darkness that we Should Too.

I have a shirt I often wear with a quote by Martin Luther King Jr. that reads,

“Only in the darkness can you see the stars.”

I looked it up to avoid misquoting him and ensure the quote was accurate. I mean, we all know that Abraham Lincoln said you can’t believe everything you read on the internet, right? The actual quote by Dr. King was,

“Only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”

This was given in a speech on April 3rd, 1968, and he would be assassinated the next day on April 4th. Dr. King surely knew darkness in his day and, to some extent, the value of some of us who have endured darkness.

The civil rights movement no doubt had some dark days. I would go as far as saying that it had some of the darkest days the world has known.

We continue to see many of these tragedies happening in our day. Racism, discrimination, and prejudice still run rampant in so many ways. We also face the opioid epidemic, the alarming rates of poverty, the divide between the rich and the poor, mass shootings, and a host of other problems that continue to destroy the fabric of our society and push us to the edge like what existed in the 1960s, and Dr. King fought for in his time and ultimately gave his life for at that time.

I believe that Dr. King was truly onto something in the message he chose to share in that final speech. He was able to recognize that, in a very real way, darkness is an essential thing to exist for change to happen. I am also willing to bet he knew that the cause he fought for would get darker before it got better. There is a quote that I also use frequently from Brené Brown where she talks about how we have to know our darkness to sit in the darkness with others. I believe this speaks to the necessity of darkness in our lives and the world as a way to help others through this. We can only bring others as far as we’ve come ourselves.

Something that is also important to note is that although Dr. King spoke on darkness, he was also quoted as saying that “Darkness cannot drive out Darkness. Only light can do that.” I believe in a very real way, we need to know darkness to recognize the light to drive it away. I wrote previously on the idea of being positive all the time. The issue with this is life can’t be this way all the time, and for many of us, it is not even this way most of the time. Darkness works similarly in that we will have both times of light and times of darkness in our lives, no matter who we are.

This quote resonates with me in many ways because of the darkness I have endured and how it helps me see the light in myself and others. I grew up in a house where most people were smoking both tobacco and marijuana, drinking alcohol, using crank, gambling, and we were very poor and moved a lot from either not paying rent or money being stolen. This resulted in rarely attending school and dropping out at 14 to doing drugs at an early age and being highly addicted to meth from 16 to 21. I saw things in the first 21 years of my life that most people will never even know about in their lifetime, and that is a blessing for them.

At 21, I moved to Idaho to get clean, thinking these things had no real impact on me. Then came the debilitating depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which led to chronic suicidality and multiple attempts to try and end my life. All this was present while trying to make changes and get an education. Finally, as I went through years of therapy, I found a stable level of living. This stability did not come from avoiding my darkness, but from embracing and understanding how to use this as a tool to help myself and then also help others. I truly know what my own darkness is and how it allows me to sit with others as they explore finding that light for themselves.

I genuinely believe that the only way to help others find the stars in their darkness is by navigating it.

People have amazing things about them if they can only break unhealthy patterns of beliefs, thinking, behaviors, and social ties. I never believed that if I could do it, anyone could because I still don’t know all of the why or the how, but I will continue to be grateful even fully understanding all the answers and reasons. I spent years caught up in this, and it never did me any good. I will also be thankful that it has helped me navigate where I am and how I can help people.

One thing I will always admire about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is that even though he had gone through the darkness, saw darkness, and fought against darkness, he chose to recognize how this helped us to see the stars. He worked hard at seeing the stars himself and trying to help others see them as well. We need more of that in the world today. So, this year, on the day we celebrate him and his birth, let’s all try and understand our darkness a little more so we can become brighter stars to bring the light in a world where darkness seems ever more engulfing.


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