Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Drum Major Instinct

Excerpts from a sermon by Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, spoken at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia on February 4, 1968

Let us see that we all have the drum major instinct. We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade. Alfred Adler, the great psychoanalyst, contends that this is the dominant impulse. Sigmund Freud used to contend that sex was the dominant impulse, and Adler came with a new argument saying that this quest for recognition, this desire for attention, this desire for distinction is the basic impulse, the basic drive of human life, this drum major instinct.

We begin early to ask life to put us first. Our first cry as a baby is a bid for attention. And all through childhood the drum major impulse or instinct is a major obsession. Children ask life to grant them first place. They are a little bundle of ego. And they innately have the drum major impulse or instinct inside them.

Now in adult life, we still have it, and we really never get by it. We like to do something good, and we like to be praised for it. Everybody likes it, as a matter of fact. And somehow this warm glow we feel when we are praised or when our name is in print is like the vitamin A to our ego.

There comes a time that the drum major instinct can become destructive. And that's where I want to move now. I want to move to the point of saying that if this instinct is not harnessed, it becomes a very dangerous, pernicious instinct. For instance, if it isn’t harnessed, it causes one's personality to become distorted. If it isn't harnessed, you will end up day in and day out trying to deal with your ego problem by boasting.

And then the final great tragedy of the distorted personality is the fact that when one fails to harness this instinct, he ends up trying to push others down in order to push himself up. And whenever you do that, you engage in some of the most vicious activities. You will spread evil, vicious, lying gossip on people, because you are trying to pull them down in order to push yourself up. And the great issue of life is to harness the drum major instinct.

The drum major instinct can lead to exclusivity in one's thinking and can lead one to feel that because he has some training, he's a little better than the person who doesn't have it. Or because he has some economic security, that he's a little better than the person who doesn't have it. And that's the uncontrolled, perverted use of the drum major instinct.

But that isn't what Jesus did; he did something altogether different. He said in substance, "Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you're going to be my disciple, you must be." But he reordered priorities. And he said, "Yes, don't give up this instinct. It's a good instinct if you use it right. It's a good instinct if you don't distort it and pervert it. Don't give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do."

And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That's a new definition of greatness.

What I like about this perspective is that under this definition of greatness, everybody can be great because everybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.

1 comment:

  1. "The spiritual knowledge acquired by the sannyasis and the eightfold perfections achieved by the mystics are all within easy reach of the transcendentalist.

    "Therefore, the transcendentalist does not desire to achieve any profit, adoration, or distinction. He desires no gain whatever, except to be engaged in the transcendental service of Godhead -- because simply by such service, he gains all. Once one achieves the supreme gain, which encompasses all other gains, what is there still to be achieved?"

    MoG 2: Karma-yoga