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Judy Kuriansky, Ph.D. Headshot

Martin Luther King Jr. Words of Wisdom: Apply to Your Life

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The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we celebrate as a federal holiday on the third Monday in January, was distinguished in many ways.

His famous "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington Aug. 28, 1963 has been canonized as one of the greatest pieces of American oratory.

Four months later, King was recognized as Time magazine's Man of the Year and called "America's Ghandi." The following year he became the youngest Nobel Peace laureate, at age 35.

His other honors range from the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal to the renaming of nearly 800 U.S. streets in his honor and a memorial statue on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Indeed, King was one of the most eloquent prophets of peace of our time.

On the celebration of his birthday this year, when he would have been 85, it is good to remember 12 remarkable declarations from his speeches that give psychologically inspiring and meaningful advice for life.

1. Be the best in whatever you do.

"If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven played music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, 'Here lived a great street sweeper.'"

This recommendation -- my favorite -- implores us to excel at whatever we do. In other words, if you flip burgers, prepare a patty as if you had a Ph.D. in it.

2. Feel good about yourself.

"Don't allow anybody to make you feel that you're nobody. Always feel that you count. Always feel that you have worth, and always feel that your life has ultimate significance."

Self-esteem is key to happiness, peacefulness and success. Though you may be tempted to think you are a "nobody," believe you're a "somebody" -- words used in psychology as well as by King himself. Don't fall victim to others' judgments, criticism or disapproval.

3. Help others.

"Life's most persistent and urgent question is, What are you doing for others?"

Being of service to others is another key to happiness and greatness, as King preached in the biblical dictum that you are your brother's keeper. Think about what you do to help others.

Also honor those who serve. Thank the doorman, the bus driver and a messenger, for how they help you.

4. Make others happy.

"The surest way to be happy is to seek happiness for others."

Research proves that doing good feels good. Volunteering boosts both the immune system and your mood.

Ask yourself, "What can I do today to bring joy to someone else's life?" Then do it, from your heart, without thinking even once of what you might get in return.

5. Connect deeply with others.

"'I' cannot reach fulfillment without 'thou' ... All life is interrelated ... Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be."

Echoing existential philosopher Martin Buber, King's belief in the "I-thou" connection teaches that no man is an island, that you and I are inherently interdependent, needing each other and responsible for one another. Deep connection with others and a sense of community are shown by research to be emotionally, physically and spiritually healing.

Ask yourself, "In what way am I looking out for others' well-being?"

6. Show appreciation.

"In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."

All too often we take others for granted and forget to express gratitude, when in fact everyone flourishes when acknowledged, appreciated and complimented.

When is the last time you told someone what a good job they do, how they enrich your life or how much you enjoy their company?

7. Forgive.

"We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive ... There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies."

Religious thought as well as research in social sciences and medicine shows that forgiveness promotes emotional, physical and spiritual health. Let go of ill-will and thoughts of revenge. Ask yourself, "When's the last time I forgave someone else, or myself?"

8. Have faith.

"Take the first step in faith. You don't have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step."

Everyone, at some point, has feared the future or panicked about an overwhelming task. Whether cleaning the garage or working for world peace, take one small step at a time, and the big picture will eventually manifest.

9. Dream.

"[I have] a dream of a nation where all our gifts and resources are held not for ourselves alone, but as instruments of service for the rest of humanity; the dream of a country where every man will respect the dignity and worth of the human personality."

Research confirms that dreams can come true as the mind manifests an image that takes form in reality. Verbalizing and sharing your dream with others makes its materialization even more possible. Think about what you want for your life, for loved ones and for the world.

10. Be fearless.

"I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man."

Fearing what others will do, and worrying about the future, shut down our positive thoughts and actions. Think instead about what you would do in your own life if you were free from such fear and worry.

11. Embrace love.

"Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it ... Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."

Refuse to let negative energy from others into your life. Instead of despising those who hurt you, see them as teaching you a lesson about how to be a better person. Offering compassion defuses others' destructive power over you. It also lets you feel inner peace and can even change their demeanor.

12. Let hope spring eternal.

"If you lose hope, somehow you lose the vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of it all ... Don't let tough times get you down ... When the storm clouds gather, when things get tough, persevere and don't give up."

Research proves that hope, courage and perseverance elevate your overall well-being and can even abate serious illnesses such as cancer. These character strengths help us face problems, overcome obstacles and reach goals.

Following King's advice can lead to a more fulfilling and peaceful life personally, interpersonally and globally.

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