Today in the United States we celebrate the legacy of the pioneering civil rights leader Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In my lifetime, I can’t remember a time when his work for racial justice and human rights has felt more relevant than it currently does.
In 1963, Dr. King addressed his critics in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail. The letter is the source of his famous quote that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And so much more.
Of the many pieces of timeless wisdom in Dr. King’s letter, what stuck out for me when reading it today was his discussion of the need for tension to generate progress. He was specifically calling out that his critics were coming from a place of inner discomfort with the “inconvenience” of the non-violent demonstrations. They questioned the need to act rather than wait for things to take their natural course in time.
This feels so current in light of the reckoning around racial justice and equality that is taking place in the United States. I recall hearing complaints from people over the summer that the protests across the country were “inconvenient,” apparently blind to the inconvenience of systemic racism.
Also, it wasn’t lost on me that his remarks about tension were sticking out for me because this topic was already in my consciousness: I just wrote about the tension yesterday. Synchronicity at play.
Wisdom Beyond The Particulars
True wisdom starts with the particular but extends universally. Dr. King’s message about tension applies beyond the context of the racial justice movement and we can learn from his words speaks to how we handle the discomfort inherent in progress, expansion, learning, and the creative process.
Once we understand that tension is necessary, we can practice embracing it more fully. With less energy devoted to resisting discomfort we have more available to moving forward with progress
This is my attempt to extrapolate the lessons and help you see the application of Dr. King’s wisdom to the tension that arises in circles, classrooms, and conference rooms.
Tension in Communities, Classrooms and Conference Room
How People in Power Repress Tension
Tension is a natural part of the creative and collaborative process, but it’s often avoided by people in power in the name of preserving “harmony.”
Nobody likes to look at an ugly, open wound. Avoidance of tension is commonplace both in the realm of racial justice and in the general marketplace of ideas.
In communities, companies, conference rooms, and classrooms, those in positions of power and privilege often use their status to shut down any actions or opinions that expose tension.
In the community context, those in charge may try to create rules prohibiting gathering or expression, or call for “law and order” to reign in peaceful protesters. Within a company, a person who speaks up or speaks out to express opinions contrary to the status quo are often blamed for creating tension or chastised for speaking out of place. In a classroom, a teacher may shut down a student who seeks to challenge what is being presented.
Sometimes the tension is repressed through overt methods that look and feel like outright rejection. More often, the signals are subtle. It’s the friend who says “maybe you shouldn’t bring this forward because it might make people uncomfortable.” The manager who says “you should consider the impact on your business if you express this opinion publicly.” It’s the teacher who suggests that the student may not be liked by their classmates if they continue to question the teachings.
In most of these cases, the person in power is really trying to preserve their own sense of ease.
Ultimately the fear of tension has nothing to do with what’s happening outside. It’s a fear of internal tension: the risk that we might be exposed to an idea that threatens our current perspective or our sense of identity.
4 Lessons from Dr. King About Tension
Reviewing Dr. King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail, I extracted four lessons about tension that we can apply beyond the racial justice movement. These impact us in classrooms, conference rooms, and in the creative process.
(1) Tension is Necessary for Growth
Our fear or and discomfort with tension often leads us to avoid uncomfortable situations, whether clashes in community forums or conference rooms.
Dr. King articulated that he was not afraid of tension — being clear that he was referring to the tension created by non-violent protests — because he knew that this tension was a necessary agent for growth.
My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.
(2) Resisting Tension Creates Complacency
Dr. King understood the reality that people don’t like tension, and will default to complacency to avoid it. In his view, those who silently cling to complacency present a worse danger to progress than those who are vocal against change.
I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
(3) Tension is a Necessary Part of Transition
In any ongoing enterprise, we might confront situations where existing structures no longer serve their original intentions. Illuminating these situations exposes tension that is inherent in any transition to a new paradigm. As Dr. King wrote,
I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.
(4) Tension is Exposed, Not Created
Dr. King also pointed out that protestors, and by extension those who speak out in any context, do not create the tension, they merely expose what is already there.
Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
Leaders Hold Space for Healthy Tension
As Dr. King articulated in his letter, when we refuse to hold space for tension we block the flow of progress.
Unfortunately many “leaders” — i.e., people in power — view dissenting viewpoints or challenges to their rules or teachings as personal threats. They don’t know how to hold space for tension in communities, companies, conference rooms, or classrooms because they don’t know how to hold space for the tension within themselves.
True leaders hold space for healthy tension and for the discomfort it creates because they know that it is only through embracing all voices and opinions, and the tension naturally created by conflicting view points, that we can create new paradigms and possibilities that expand our potential.
Holding Space is a Skill
This is a skill that can be learned. It’s a muscle that can be developed, with practice, over time. It starts within ourselves, because ultimately that’s the tension we fear most: what becomes of my identity if I acknowledge your perspective?
Traveling the Territory of Tension
Whether we are seeking justice for people or justice for ideas, the path to progress must travel through the territory of tension. Tension is the birth canal for innovation, the soil for new ideas, the incubator for learning.
As we move into a new phase of history and work to create new paradigms, holding space for tension — both within yourself and in the circles you lead — will become an even more crucial skill for all leaders. Without it, you’ll cut off your path to progress and innovation.
- In case you didn’t know, this blog is generally written in real time. The executive function required for long-term content planning is not my strength . ↩