Martin Luther King Jr’s most famous speech is likely “I Have a Dream” but it is “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” that holds deep meaning for me. Dr. King delivers this speech in Memphis at a time when black sanitation workers are being grossly oppressed; Why? The color of their skin. Dr. King learns of this discrimination and responds in person, despite threats to his life. He emphasizes the importance of a nonviolent yet impactful response in his monologue given the night before a demonstration march.
Dr. King addresses the evil of injustice, the power of unity and the importance of resilience illustrated, in part, by the story of The Good Samaritan. Dr. King retells the story of a Jewish man assaulted and left dying on the side of the road. A kinsman of the victim happens upon him first, but does not help. Next, a priest rides up to the man but he also fails to come to his aid. The third person to find this desperate man chooses a different path and rescues him. Ironically, the rescuer is ethnically, culturally and spiritually the opposite of the man he saves. Samaritans, in fact, are outcasts of Jewish society during this time period.
Continuing, Dr. King surmises why the Samaritan acts while the other two fail to do. Dr. King lists possible reasons for their failure including being too busy or breaking religious protocol or having lofty priorities that cause them not to see the need right in front of them. Dr. King doesn’t accept these though. Instead, he identifies fear as the limiting factor in doing the right thing. Fear for personal safety, fear of being set up and/or fear of getting their hands dirty lead the first two men to ask the question, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”. The difference the third man demonstrates is in reframing the same question to, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” The struggle Dr. King highlights in this story is one of selfishness vs. selflessness. It is Dr. King’s attitude of selflessness that places him in front of his murderer the next day.
So nurses, what can we draw from Dr King’s example and use in our professional lives? I see three applications:
Root Out Bias
Structural racism is a term of recent notoriety. It refers to the manner in which race, culture, tradition, etc. converge within institutions (think health systems, academia and even, nursing units) and shape a distorted groupthink mentality regarding those on the outside of these collectives. The result is disparity and discrimination that marginalizes at-risk members of society. We certainly see this in current politics and law; it certainly exists within healthcare.
Nurses practice on the front lines of this battle of injustice. We possess the ability to see it, say it and stop it! This may not make one popular but that’s the idea — we need to focus on what happens to others over what happens to me. (I highlight my own struggle with this in Who’s the Troll?)
Opportunities to step away from comfortable and into adventure exists daily in the life of any nurse. Your abilities as a nurse provide you with critical thinking skills, clinical knowledge and meaningful influence – you are a lifesaver! This is powerful, so don’t squander it!
The experiences I’ve had in places like Ukraine, Bulgaria, Haiti and even 50,000 feet over the Atlantic saving a woman from near-anaphylaxis are some of the richest (scariest) times of my career! There are also more intimate moments when I’ve shared deeply and bonded firmly to the patients and families in my care. Yes, I took risks but on this side, I have no regrets. Can I challenge you to orient yourself to an attitude of “YES!” when invited to reach your fuller potential for the sake of others?
Live Like Tomorrow is Your Last Day on Earth
I end this post with the words Martin Luther King Jr. ended his last speech. He didn’t know this was his last and that’s the way we should live. Here is how he closed:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life–longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Nurses face unique challenges everyday. We are with people at their most vulnerable time and have opportunities to make lasting, positive changes. Our time to act is now because we know better than most that tomorrow is never guaranteed.
Nurse like a King!