Listen to The Thread: The Surprising Psychology of Nonviolence

Listen to The Thread: The Surprising Psychology of Nonviolence

Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King lead a civil rights march circa 1965.

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Why you should care

Because the secret ingredient of nonviolent leadership might lie in mental illness.

Welcome to The Thread, OZY’s hit weekly podcast. In Season 3, The Thread charts how a revolutionary idea — nonviolent resistance — changed the course of history. Subscribe now to follow The Thread on Apple or on OZY.com.

In the last years of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. was beginning to doubt the promise of his own famous dream. By the late 1960s, many in the Black community were growing impatient with the slowing pace of change after the initial progress achieved by the American civil rights movement. King was often booed during his speeches or greeted by chants of “Black Power.”

King was traveling constantly, working at a frantic pace and having trouble sleeping. He was also severely depressed, often expressing despair. King’s troubles can be heard in the final sermon he gave in Memphis on April 3, 1968 — the evening before his assassination — in which he informed his audience that he had seen the “Promised Land,” but “may not get there with you.” King battled depression repeatedly in his life. And, as we learn this week in the final episode of Season 3 of The Thread, depression was an essential part of who the nonviolent preacher was, not to mention one of the reasons he was able to change the world.

Research shows that people who have depression are more empathetic than people who don’t have depression. And that empathy is also likely the secret ingredient of nonviolence.

King often talked about the notion of “maladjustment” in his sermons and speeches. “We all want to live a well-adjusted life in order to avoid the neurotic and schizophrenic personalities,” King observed, for example, in a speech at UCLA in 1965. But King also believed that if one wanted to do battle with injustice in society, then it was important to be maladjusted to the world: “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted,” he argued.

King was right. It turns out that the ranks of nonviolent civil rights leaders, from King himself to the Indian lawyer and activist Mohandas Gandhi, are filled with the creatively maladjusted. And that maladjustment is often much more than a philosophical one — or even an aversion to the inequities of the status quo — it is a clinical condition. According to Nassir Ghaemi, a psychiatrist at Tufts University and Harvard Medical School who studies depression and bipolar illness, King almost certainly suffered from manic depression. He attempted suicide twice in his adolescence and suffered from periodic episodes of severe depression throughout his life, including ones that required him to check into a hospital for weeks at a time.

But King was not the only legendary champion of nonviolence to battle depression. Mohandas Gandhi also experienced several bouts of severe depression in his life, starting with a suicide attempt when he was just 12 years old. Gandhi also went through periods where he would take to his bed for days when there was nothing physically wrong with him. Another advocate of nonviolent resistance — one who strongly influenced Gandhi — the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy also demonstrated symptoms of bipolar disorder in which he would experience extreme exhilaration along with periods of deep depression and suicidal thoughts.

King, Gandhi and Tolstoy, however, shared something else: a profound sense of empathy — and that empathy was likely tied to their depression. According to Ghaemi, author of A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness, research shows that people who have depression are more empathetic than people who don’t have depression, and depression deepens empathy. And that empathy is also likely the secret ingredient of nonviolence. “I think of nonviolence as radical empathy,” argues Ghaemi. “You can turn the other cheek and not strike back because you care about the other person who’s hitting you.” It’s a phenomenon that Gandhi himself homed in on: “Three-fourths of the miseries and misunderstandings in the world will disappear,” he said, “if we step into the shoes of our adversaries and understand their standpoint.”

Enhanced empathy, though, is just one side of the manic-depressive coin — and only one of its surprising benefits. While the depressive side of their personalities may have helped visionaries like King and Gandhi forge an enhanced sense of empathy, the manic side — the high-energy, high-intensity side — also helped them excel as nonviolent leaders. Studies show that mania can help make those with it more creative and more resilient, and less likely to experience major traumas or stress. Just what you need to help summon what Gandhi called “the courage to face the mob.”

In short, King, Gandhi and other nonviolent champions suffering from manic-depression were able not only to harness the tremendous empathy required to love one’s enemies but also to channel their energy into the courage needed to resist violence and injustice. And their examples teach us about much more than just how to battle injustice. “[I]f we understand them well,” says Ghaemi, “we have to change our mindset around psychiatric illness. And that’s an important aspect of really knowing who they were.”

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