Recently, I read a very thought-provoking article about a seldom discussed aspect of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. The author posits that depression could have played an influential role in the efficacy of his life’s greatest works. Nassir Ghaemi, who is working on a psychological biography of MLK, poses the following question in the February 2014 Psychology Today, “ Were personal demons a key factor in MLK’s charismatic and transformational leadership?”
The deeper attitude behind [MLK’s] philosophy was his view that we should be “creatively maladjusted.” King was explicit in a sermon: “Everybody passionately seeks to be well-adjusted,” he said. “But there are some things… to which men of good will must be maladjusted.”
Psychiatrists and psychologists see being “adjusted” as fitting in, being accepted, “functioning” well. We tend to be rewarded for being well-adjusted, but King realized that to solve life’s problems, especially the most profound—racism, poverty, and war—we have to become, in a sense, abnormal. We have to stop accepting what everyone else believes. We have to become maladjusted if we are to be creative, and then we may find that insoluble dilemmas are masks for unrecognized problems with simple solutions.
King may have known what it meant to be maladjusted psychologically because he wasn’t normal psychiatrically.
Some won’t like the notion that King suffered from manic symptoms and depressive episodes. It would be ironic if those who admire his valiant fight against racism showed a bias against psychiatric illnesses, especially since illness may have contributed to his accomplishments.
Studies show that depression enhances empathy toward others, as well as realism in assessment of one’s own circumstances. King’s nonviolent resistance can be understood as a politics of radical empathy, an acceptance of one’s enemies as part and parcel of advancing one’s own agenda. The goal was not to defeat them but to change their attitudes: Racism was not a political problem to be outlawed; it was a psychological disease to be cured.
I recommend you check out the whole article here. It really forced me to take pause and think about the psychological make-up behind the very real people who fill our textbooks with their actions and end-goals but not their demons and pitfalls. The very thing which may contribute to the empathy, leadership, and creativity we take for granted is never discussed. This hypocrisy, especially as it pertains to admirers of King, is a striking argument. Perhaps, like King, we should look towards creative maladjustment.