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How to Imagine the Future like MLK, Jr.

Posted January 28, 2020 • Change • by Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler, Ph.D.


Dear friends,

Last week, we celebrated the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. here in the US.

In my family, each year on this day, my husband and I do something special with our kids to remember Dr. King and his vision for our country.

This year, at a gathering with friends, we decided to watch Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. More than 50 years after Dr. King gave this speech in 1963, it continues to be an inspiration for our family and for so many people around the globe.

Stop Using Your Rational Mind

So often, when we’re stuck in conflict, we’re also stuck looking backward—at what went wrong and who is to blame. Or, if we are able to look ahead, we’re using our rational thinking brains to try to come up with solutions to our problems.

The thing is, when we’re stuck in recurring conflict, rational solutions tend not to work. If they did, we’d have gotten unstuck a long time ago.

The key when you’re stuck in recurring conflict is to stop trying to use your rational mind to solve the problem, and to shift into using your imagination instead.

For the past 10 years, I have played a clip of the “I Have a Dream” speech for my graduate students at Columbia to demonstrate how Dr. King uses the power of the imagination—through the use of all five of our senses, plus our emotions—to help us all imagine a better future for ourselves, our families, our nation and the world.

Use Your Senses–and Appeal to Others’ Senses Too

When I began researching the practices that wise leaders have used throughout the ages to free themselves and masses of people from conflict, I realized that the secret to Dr. King’s most famous speech was not the fact that he used the phrase “I have a dream” repetitively, as we might have learned in elementary school.

The language he used is grounded in imagination—his own, and ours—and draws upon our senses. He imagined the future he wanted for us, and he expressed it in words that appeal to all five of our senses: not only seeing and hearing, but also touching, tasting and smelling. And his language also calls out to our emotions.

For example, when he says, “Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood,” he describes how the ground will feel beneath our feet, moving from “quicksands” to “solid rock” when we move from the current situation to his ideal future.

When he says, “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood,” he whets our appetite to taste the food at the feast of fellowship in his ideal future.

When he calls out, “This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, ‘My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring,’” King helps us hear the tune of the song and the chime of the bells of freedom ringing. And he captures our emotions by bringing forth these well-known words that call on us to fulfill our highest ideals as a nation.

While we are still striving to make his imagined future a reality, Dr. King’s words and actions undeniably made a great difference in the lives of so many people in the US and around the world.

How can we be the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. of our own lives? For instance:  

  • How can we imagine a better future, for ourselves and for those around us, in whatever situation we find ourselves in?
  • How can we communicate about that imagined future in a way that is likely to inspire others?

Learn more:

  1.  To be inspired by Dr. King’s powerful imagined future, click here to watch the video or read the transcript of his 1963 “I Have a Dream” Speech.
  2. Learn how to use the imagination and the five senses in John Paul Lederach’s excellent book, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace, or listen to his interview with Krista Tippett and America Ferrara on the radio show / podcast On Being.
  3. Learn how to use your imagination MLK-style and how to communicate with others about the future you’d like to create in my new book, Optimal Outcomes: Free Yourself from Conflict at Work, at Home, and in Life.

In freedom,


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