“What is your life’s blueprint?” Six months before he was murdered, Martin Luther King delivered a short but exceptionally insightful address on this question. As we remember him this Martin Luther King Day, this speech ought to be remembered alongside his more famous addresses. In just 563 words, delivered at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia, King points the way for anyone seeking a meaningful life.
To help people find the true meaning of life, he zeroed in on three eternal principles: understand your dignity, work hard to achieve excellence, and serve others like you’re on a mission from God – because you are. Yet he made these timeless principles timely, applying them to the enormous social and economic challenges that he was facing and that we, in many ways, still face. Today, the address reads like it could have been delivered 47 days ago rather than 47 years ago.
The starting point is to understand that meaning comes from order, structure and purpose. Life cannot have meaning if you make it up for yourself as you go. As King explains, “a building is not well erected without a good, solid blueprint,” and “each of you is in the process of building the structure of your lives, and the question is whether you have a proper, a solid and a sound blueprint.”
Though he cannot stop to draw them out at length, here at the outset King alludes to two profound implications contained in this image. He points out that the blueprint exists before the building, and is the “pattern” and “guide” for constructing it. We cannot create the blueprint of meaning as we construct the building of life; there must be a higher plan for our lives. King also mentions that if there is a blueprint for our lives, there is “an architect.”
This leads directly to King’s first principle. You are important and have intrinsic “dignity” and “worth,” precisely because you are made according to a transcendent blueprint. As he puts it, “number one in your life’s blueprint should be a deep belief in . . . your own somebodiness. Don’t allow anybody to make you feel that you’re nobody.” King illustrated this point by the very fact that he took time out of his schedule leading a national movement to speak at a junior high school.
Don’t miss the deep significance in the language of “somebodiness.” Human beings matter in a special way because they are made with unique identity and purpose. A bird making a nest is a beautiful thing, but the bird is not a moral agent making meaningful choices. It is mindlessly obeying its instincts. A bird is not different, in any really important way, from any other bird of the same species. Millions of birds have made millions of nests, and they will go on doing it until the world ends – all of them beautiful in their ways. But not one of those birds was a person. Not one of those birds had what King calls “somebodiness.” With all due respect to the beauty of the birds, they are all, in a very real sense, “nobody.” You are not.
This was, and remains, not only a timeless principle but a timely message. The students of Barratt Junior High in October 1967 were growing up in a world that told a lot of its people they were nobody. Thanks to King and many others, we have made a lot of progress fighting some of those injustices. But there is a long way yet to go, and the world has been busy. Today many people are dehumanized in new ways not yet dreamt of in 1967.
King’s second principle shows that this affirmation of dignity and worth is no excuse for narcissism and self-indulgence. If the source of our dignity is a “blueprint” – a transcendent purpose – then we had better strive to match that blueprint. It turns out that takes a lot of work and self-denial.
King told those children to cultivate a “determination to achieve excellence in your various fields of endeavor.” And he did them a big favor by not sugarcoating the fact that this means a lot of hard work. These days, telling people to get off their rear ends and work hard is seen as harsh; King knew better. He knew that human dignity depends upon the call to work and self-denial, that you cannot have “somebodiness” unless you are the kind of creature who ought to hear that call.
Of course, King (of all people!) did not neglect the reality of injustice. He acknowledged, with a striking tenderness, that these children had often seen their parents’ hard work go scorned or exploited by a cruel world. But he insisted, with an equally striking firmness, that this was no excuse to drop out. Resistance to injustice, yes; resistance to striving and achievement, never.
The most profound part of the talk is where he connects this eternal calling to work with an up-to-date understanding of the dynamics of economic change. He knows that in some ways a new world is opening up for the children of Barratt Junior High. That new world is still unfolding today, and we need to keep alive King’s vision of its potential.
Notice how he couples a realistic acknowledgment of injustice with a hopeful realization of new opportunities:
I say to you, my young friends, doors are opening to you – doors of opportunities that were not open to your mothers and your fathers – and the great challenge facing you is to be ready to face these doors as they open. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great essayist, said in a lecture in 1871, “If a man can write a better book or preach a better sermon or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor, even if he builds his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.” This hasn’t always been true, but it will become increasingly true, and so I would urge you to study hard, to burn the midnight oil; I would say to you, don’t drop out of school. I understand all the sociological reasons, but I urge you that in spite of your economic plight, in spite of the situation that you’re forced to live in — stay in school.
King’s assessment of the promise of the entrepreneurial economy is profound: “This hasn’t always been true, but it will become increasingly true.” The modern economy makes possible breathtaking advances in human dignity, love, justice and freedom. Some of those possibilities have been realized. Yet for many, this promise “hasn’t always been true.” Nobody knows that better than King. And yet, he has the vision to see that “it will become increasingly true.” He’s right.
And here we come to the climax of the speech, where his starting point (our divine blueprint as human beings) and his ending point (the challenge of hard work in an unjust world) meet and join hands. In a soaring mini-oratory that has been quoted in the faith and work movement thousands of times, and yet not nearly often enough, King unfolds the divine mystery of vocation. No matter what your arenas of service may be, in every activity of life you are on a mission from God. What matters is not how much wealth or success you accumulate – whether you are, as he puts it, the tree on top of the hill or the shrub in the valley – but how faithful you are to your mission:
When you discover what you will be in your life, set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it. Don’t just set out to do a good job. Set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn’t do it any better. If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera, sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.
King understood that vocation is central to the meaning of human life, and is especially important to people who are suffering under injustice. Obviously vocation is not the only thing we need, and I don’t think King meant to imply it was; if you asked him for a complete overview of the meaning of life, I suspect he would have more to say about other issues, like sin and redemption, than he does here. But if you are speaking to people who have been told they are nobody, the first step is to help them recover their sense of “somebodiness” and their agency. It is both a timeless word and a word still very much in season.