1. What does this quotation mean to you?
The great civil rights leader, the reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was trying to draw attention to not only the prevalence of injustice, but the ways in which such injustice is structural, systematic, as damaging to those oppressed as to those oppressing. The civil rights era in the United States was one of demonstrating the ways in which social injustices, like racism, were not merely individual issues of hatred or bigotry, but were profoundly social issues, maintained and sustained through both evident and hidden social, political, and personal norms. One may ask how oppression harms not just the oppressed, but the oppressor, as well. Here, King identifies the intense mutuality of the human condition – those who experience hatred of others are the most evidently harmed, but those who live in a state of hatred harm themselves, as well. They cut themselves out of that “single garment of destiny” – a phrase laden with meaning for King, as both an activist and a religious leader. That “garment of destiny” for him was the arc of history bending toward justice, as both an ethical principle and a manifestation of the love of the divine. To cut ourselves off from each other, for King, is also to cut ourselves off from an aspect of that divine love. When we hate, when we are prejudiced, when we harm others, we become toxic vessels, carrying and spreading poison that leeches into the very waters of life itself. To understand our mutuality, to understand that harming others is to harm ourselves and to harm those we accept and love, is to make a profound and radical realization. When we refuse to question and critique the racism, prejudice, and hatred woven into our social structures, we all suffer. When hatred is our inspiration to action, those actions themselves will continue to manifest as hatred, and humans cannot thrive and develop in such conditions, just as flowers cannot bloom in a toxic waste dump.
2. Can you reflect on a time when this quotation was relevant in your own life?
During my pre-med education, I was fortunate to take several courses on social determinants of health, which explored intersections of health and sex, gender, wealth inequality, and even the theoretical foundations of medicalization and criminalization (via Michel Foucault and others). Prior to these courses, health seemed like a rather simple concept – I thought that, even if it wasn’t merely a binary (health-illness, wellness-unwellness), it was likely what we might call a shallow spectrum, with a few plot points between each end. I quickly learned how wrong I was, and how complex things really are. Not only in each individual person a rich tapestry, with a multitude of threads – biological and social conditions – factoring into their overall presentation, every individual is themselves a thread woven into an even larger tapestry – or garment – of the broader society. If threads in the individual garment become loose or frayed, health may be compromised. Likewise, if threads in that larger social garment become frayed, the social body (both collective and individual) suffers, as well. The social worlds we create in our “single garment of destiny” impact all those in that society, and the threads that have been put under more extreme pressure (e.g., through inequality, lack of access to resources, criminalization, etc.) may be at greater risk of becoming compromised, and if even one thread breaks, the whole of the garment becomes destabilized. To ensure the health of the individual, we must progress socially; to progress socially, we must ensure the health of the individual. Each is bound to, and intrinsically part of, the other. I feel fortunate to have had educational experiences that allowed me to realize at least one of the layers of truth to Dr. King’s statement.
3. How does this question relate to your desired field?
Building on the previous answer, as a medical doctor, it is important to note the social factors of health and wellness, along with physiological, genetic, or other biological factors. These, however, are much more difficult to determine, without an acknowledgment of their existence and importance, and without a strong patient-physician relationship. In order to treat patients effectively, physicians must gather insights into their acute symptoms, but also their living conditions, the resources available (or unavailable) to them, whether or not they have access to nutritious foods, whether they have time for proper rest and self-care, or whether they consistently work multiple jobs, 60-80 hours a week. Standard routines of care are useless if a patient cannot afford the ideal course of treatment. A prescription for physiotherapy is pointless if the patient has no time for appointments because they work two jobs. All of these things are interconnected, but such insights are inaccessible if a patient is viewed only as a list of symptoms, conditions, hereditary tendencies. Doctors have a responsibility to build a trusting relationship to fully understand their patients’ circumstances, and to advocate on their behalf, understanding that each individual’s wellness or illness may in some way be tied to that wider collection of social conditions.