“Creatively maladjusted? 

This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists… The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority… Human salvation lies in the hands of the creative maladjusted.” – Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love — Chapter 2: Transformed nonconformist (1963)

“The deeper attitude behind King’s philosophy was his view that we should be “creatively maladjusted.” King was explicit in a sermon on this topic: “Everybody passionately seeks to be well-adjusted,” he said. “…but there are some things in our world to which men of good will must be maladjusted….Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.” Psychiatrists and psychologists call “adjusted” the intention of fitting in, being accepted, “functioning” well. The average teenager is obsessed with being adjusted, but so are adults, more than we care to admit: the average corporate employee, the typical professor, intellectual, television pundit – they are all rewarded for being well-adjusted. But this kind of normal thinking, this conformism, is deadly to creativity. One never has a new idea; the past is the future; all problems become insoluble dilemmas. King realized that to solve the problems of human life, especially the deepest problems—like racism, poverty, and war—we have to become, in a sense, abnormal. We have to stop going along; we have to stop accepting what everyone else believes. We have to become maladjusted if we are at all to become creative, and find that insoluble dilemmas often are the masks for other previously unrecognized problems with simple solutions.” – Nassir Ghaemi M.D., M.P.H., Martin Luther King: Depressed and Creatively Maladjusted, Psychology Today

There were many moments in my life that led to me being creatively maladjusted. I can thank my mother, Cella Coffin, for a generous portion of these moments. From a very young age, she tuned me and my sister and brother in to matters of social conscience. As a family, we marched against war and racism, marched for the environment, against nuclear weapons, and as a family we marched for love.

On April 4, 1968, I was only ten years old, and my social conscience was just beginning to evolve and shape my character and sense of life purpose. I was watching television – on our old black and white TV equipped with a coat hanger and a tin foil antennae – when the news of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination was broadcast. Intellectually, I wasn’t truly prepared for this news nor did I know how to process it intellectually, but I ran to my mother in the next room to tell her because so many times she had talked to us about him, and we knew how much my mother was affected by his teachings. When she came in the room with the television and realized what had happened, she burst into tears. The emotion was so intense that we all began crying too. Her pain etched something extremely powerful into us at that moment… a maladjustment – an emotional wound that never healed. Even now, thinking of that moment, I cry, because the pain my mother felt was so profound and so deep. From that moment forward, I was never the same. A powerful seed was planted in me – a sense that love was greater than our family unit, that there was a powerful, societal-level love – an unconditional, transformational, and transcendent love that was immensely powerful – accessible through sacrifice, service, compassion and social justice – through caring about our planet, through caring about humanity.

I can’t say that I have ever learned how to love God through any religious means… but I have found a sense of deep faith and spirituality in the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr. and others like him who have been willing to take love to its highest limits, and to make tremendous sacrifices for humanity. My “career” of social change and service and my choice to be an artist are examples the maladjustments in my life. I could not possibly have stayed on these paths my whole life if it were not for my beautiful maladjusted mother, and all the amazing maladjusted family, friends, mentors and colleagues who have kept me bent for life.

On this Martin Luther King Jr. holiday on January 20, 2020, the 25th anniversary of the day of service that celebrates the Civil Rights leader’s life and legacy, I am deeply grateful for the life work of Dr. King and all of his sacrifices and his insightful understanding that creative maladjustment is essential if humanity is going to evolve to the next level.

– Wolfram Alderson, January 20, 2020