Reflections on MLK Day

In a speech at Cornell College in October 1962, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said “People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”

I’m a medical drama junkie. I haven’t seen them all but I’ve watched a huge number of TV hospital shows or dramas centering on doctors: MASH, St. Elsewhere, ER, Emergency, Northern Exposure, Quincy, Trapper John MD, and others. I’m currently binge-watching Grey’s Anatomy (yup that’s a whole lot of binge-watching!). I know I’ve missed some biggies, but I do have other things happening in my life, and I’ll get around to the ones I’ve missed some day.

From one perspective, it’s a little strange that I do this. I don’t like doctors. Don’t get me wrong. I’m incredibly grateful that we have them. I’m awed by how committed and hard-working most of them are. I’m saying doctors but my gratitude goes out to the entire medical profession. I know some perfectly lovely people who work every day at saving lives. I just can’t help it, the profession scares me.

Part of it is upbringing. My Father nearly died from someone mistakenly giving him a drug he was allergic to. My Mother has a phobia of doctors that has to be seen to be believed. Hospitals with their antiseptic coldness and their ever-present stench of death make me want to run screaming through the automatic doors, back to my car and the little world I have the illusion I have control over. Scared visitors walk in trances. Doctors wear professional masks to protect themselves from the emotional trauma happening around them. No, I don’t like hospitals.

So what is it that attracts me and so many others to these shows? I think a large part of it is that medical shows highlight the essential equality of humans. Disease and accidents do not respect age, race, or bank accounts. Our blood carries our nutrients, we all need air and food, and our brains are incredibly complex organs that science still doesn’t fully understand. No matter who we are, we were born, and some day we will die, more often than not before we are ready to.

Perhaps this is why I’ve never been able to understand racists. What makes someone need to feel superior to someone with a different skin color when we are all so fundamentally alike?

In one sense, Dr. King’s remarks seem a bit shallow. People may fail to get along precisely because they “do” know one another. I’m really not sure that all the communication in the world would cause people to get along when one of them has done violence to the other.  A truce may be the best that can be hoped for.

On the other hand if we apply Dr. King’s words to strangers, they resonate with me. Too often we allow ourselves to be led down the path of fear by leaders with their own agendas. Hitler’s use of the Jews to create an enemy of the Third Reich is probably the most famous, but examples too countless to name can be found throughout world history and American history.

The racism inherent in certain remarks about Haiti this past week shines a spotlight on how far Americans still need to go in repairing our race relations both domestically and globally. It’s mighty easy for many Westerners to look at poor predominantly non-white countries and point to race as the problem, ignoring completely the role that Western countries played in the destruction of those countries economically and culturally.

Writers are communicators. So I challenge anyone reading this post to commit to reading more authors from foreign cultures or alternative ethnic backgrounds. Not only do unfamiliar ideas provide deeper understanding of other peoples, new ways of looking at the world spark story ideas. I am not advocating cultural appropriation and I am under no illusion that the pen will solve all problems, but if more of us make an effort to understand the struggles of other cultures, perhaps we might reduce some of that fear that Dr. King was talking about at Cornell College.

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