Dealing with Discouragement

MAY 2, 2017


Discouragement is a part of the journey of reconciliation. The process is not easy, and often the emotional toll it takes on participants is high. Involvement in reconciliation, opening up and expressing your opinion, hearing challenging teachings, sometimes having your presuppositions challenged—these all require emotional commitment and emotional engagement from participants.

We are addressing discouragement at this particular point in the process, or in the Stage Five: Committing and Returning section for a number of reasons. While discouragement can assuredly set in at earlier stages, especially when the going is tough, the topics frustrating, and the encounters sometimes painful, those who get past the pivotal point of “Who Remains?” return with a renewed vulnerability, but also, sometimes, in smaller numbers. Some of your friends and fellow participants may have decided to bow out of the process, and the frustration one hears from participants who choose not to continue is very disheartening. While aspects of this chapter are certainly relevant for earlier periods in the process, we have decided that this is the point we will address it, both as an encouragement to those who continue to be committed, and as a tool to provide reassurance in the face of future disappointments that may lie ahead in Stages Five and Six.

Reconciliation calls for a change in the status quo, for truth to speak to power, and subsequently, spiritual and social change. It has an eschatological dimension as it calls for a hope for the future, and it envisions that very future in the present. The difficulty arises when one challenges people who do not wish to give up their power or take the necessary steps for social change to take place.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Born in 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia, the civil rights movement was thrust upon Martin Luther King, Jr. as a new minister in Montgomery, Alabama shortly after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in December 1955. Martin Luther King, Jr. is most remembered for his relentless commitment to nonviolence as he fought for the civil rights of African Americans. Inspired by Jesus and Gandhi, he said “Christ gave us the goals, and Mahatma Gandhi provided the tactics.”1 He was moved by Jesus’ teachings in his Sermon on the Mount, and Gandhi’s implementation of these very teachings in India, saying “Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus    above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale.”2 Gandhi’s example affirmed King’s commitment to nonviolence as the best way to struggle for freedom from discrimination in America. As a result of his commitment to nonviolence and activism against discrimination of African Americans, King suffered beatings, was thrown in jail, lost friends and followers, and eventually lost his life when he was assassinated in 1968 at the age of 39.

Martin Luther King, Jr., embraced the methodology of nonviolence, for he believed that it was the best way to:

help those of us who have been the victims of oppression, and those of us who have been the victims of injustices in the old order, to go into the new order with the proper attitude, an attitude of reconciliation. It will help us to go in not with an idea of rising from position of disadvantage, to one of advantage, thus subverting justice. It will not cause us to substitute one tyranny for another. This is why I have said all over this nation that we must never substitute a doctrine of black supremacy for white supremacy. For the doctrine of black supremacy is as dangerous as white supremacy. God is not interested merely in the freedom of black men and brown men and yellow men but God is interested in the freedom of the whole human race, the creation of a society where all men will live together as brothers.

Basing the movement on love allowed King to practice nonviolence without allowing the oppressed to become oppressors:

When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: ‘Let us love one another; for love is of God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God.’

Love as the eternal religious principle is mirrored by nonviolence as its earthly counterpart:

At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. The nonviolent resister would contend that in the struggle for human dignity, the oppressed people of the world must not succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter or indulging in hate campaigns. To retaliate in kind would do nothing but intensify the existence of hate in the universe. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives.

As any leader of any movement, Martin Luther King, Jr., dealt with discouragement. While he knew that he would suffer as a result of his stance, the personal cost of enduring beatings, being thrown in jail, and receiving death threats was discouraging. A man of deep faith and conviction, King believed he was called to his vocation, no matter the cost. During difficult times, he would retreat, taking time for prayer and meditation. Recounting one such moment of discouragement in his sermon A Knock at Midnight, he recalls an inner voice that exhorted him:

Stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world . . . He promised never to leave me . . . I don’t mind telling you that sometimes I feel discouraged. I felt discouraged in Chicago. As I moved through Mississippi, and Georgia and Alabama, I feel discouraged. Living every day under threat of death, I feel discouraged sometimes. Living every day under extensive criticism even from Negros, I feel discouraged sometimes. Yes, sometimes I feel discouraged and feel my work is in vain, but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again. There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick souls.

Moments like these, when he received renewed inspiration and courage to continue in his task, kept him pushing onward. He pressed forward maintaining hope for the future, believing God’s justice would prevail, and God is in control. To those who turned to him, skeptical and weary of the burden of their cause, asking for more tangible, immediate results and a timetable for accomplishments, he responded with:

I know that you are asking today, “How long will it take?” …I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth pressed to earth will rise again.

How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever.

How long? Not long, because you still reap what you sow.

How long? Not long, because the arm of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.

How long? Not long, ‘cause mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, he’s trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword. His truth is marching on.

He has sounded forth the trumpets that shall never call retreat. He is lifting up the hearts of man before his judgment seat. Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer him. Be jubilant, my feet. Our God is marching on.

Just a few months before his death, Martin Luther King, Jr., assessed the “state of the movement” he was leading, and in response to the issue of despair, he stated:

We all face this temptation in our day-to-day work; there are those moments when we almost feel like giving up. We have all been seared in the flames of withering disappointment. The Negro’s disappointment is real, part of the daily menu of our lives. In our individual lives we all too often distill our frustrations into an essence of bitterness or drown ourselves in the deep waters of self-pity or adopt a fatalistic philosophy that whatever happens must happen, that all events are determined by necessity. These reactions poison the soul and scar the personality. The only healthy answer is one’s honest recognition of disappointment even as he clings to fragments of hope, the acceptance of finite disappointment while clinging to infinite hope.

… Must we respond with bitterness and cynicism? I insist that we shall not—for this can lead to black anger so desperate that it ends in black suicide. Must we turn inward in self- pity? Of course not, for this can lead to a self-defeating black paranoia. Must we conclude that we cannot win? Certainly not, for this will lead to a desperate black nihilism that seeks disruption for disruption’s sake. Must we, by fatalistically concluding that segregation is a foreordained pattern of the universe, resign ourselves to oppression? Of course not, for passively to cooperate with an unjust system makes the oppressed as evil as the oppressor. Our most fruitful course is to stand firm, move forward with aggressive nonviolence, accept disappointments and cling to hope. Our determined refusal not to be stopped will eventually thrust open the door to fulfillment.

He then continued, exhorting his followers:

In any social revolution there are times when the tailwinds of triumph and fulfillment favor us, and other times when strong head winds of disappointment and setbacks beat against us relentlessly. We must not permit adverse winds to overwhelm us as we journey across life’s Atlantic. We must be sustained by energies of courage or engines of courage, in spite of the winds—this refusal to be stopped, this courage to be, this determination to go on in spite of, is the hallmark of great movements. In the days ahead we must not consider it unpatriotic to raise basic questions about our national character.

For its very survival’s sake, America must reexamine old presuppositions and release itself from things that for centuries have been held sacred. For the evils of racism, poverty and militarism to die, a new set of values must be born. Our economy must become more person-centered than property and profit-centered. Our government must depend more on its moral power than on its military power.

Let us, therefore, not think of our movement as one that seeks to integrate the Negro into all the existing values of American society. Let us be those creative dissenters who will call our nation to a higher destiny, to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humaneness. We are superbly equipped to do this. We have been scarred in the flames of suffering. We have known the agony of being the underdog. We have learned from our have-not status that it profits a nation little to gain the whole world of means and lose the end, its own soul. We must have a passion for peace born out of the wretchedness of war, giving our ultimate allegiance to the empire of eternity.

Of course you may say to me: “This is not practical. Life is a matter of getting even, of hitting back, of dog eat dog.” “Maybe in some distant utopia,” you say, “that ideal will work, but not in the hard, cold world in which we live.” My only answer is that mankind has followed the so-called practical way for a long time now, and it has led to deeper confusion and chaos. Time is cluttered with the wreckage of individuals and communities that surrendered to hate and violence.

To those who opposed him, he proclaimed:

We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.

Practical Steps for Dealing with Discouragement

The previous quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr. show us an inspiring leader who we can look to as an example of someone who went through moments of doubt and discouragement and pressed forward all the same. Some practical tips for dealing with discouragement are:

  1. Expect discouragement and opposition to reconciliation. You will encounter discouragement; those in power do not always take kindly to those calling for justice and truth, and if you are prepared to encounter it, it will be easier to deal with.                                                     
  2. Remember your vision and goal—reconciliation. Mentally pull yourself out of the day to day struggles that occur throughout the reconciliation process and remember the “big picture.” Through reflection, contemplation and prayer, take time to focus yourself on why you are involved. This is not to be underestimated as you will be newly motivated and encouraged through this important spiritual discipline.                                                 
  3. Look at the lives of inspirational figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. Seeing how others dealt with trying situations, suffered setbacks and persevered, eventually overcoming obstacles in front of them, is encouraging and often renews motivation.                                                 
  4. Stay connected with other people involved in reconciliation and make time for the relationships you have established. Having an outlet to express successes, challenges and frustrations throughout the reconciliation journey is a vital part of staying involved in the process. Follow ups provide this to an extent, but having a more frequent forum to express yourself is necessary, as well. This could be through maintaining relationships with others involved in the reconciliation process and meeting or talking on a regular basis.                                             
  5. Think of what has been accomplished throughout your personal reconciliation journey—how you have changed, perhaps how you have influenced others to change, relationships you have established, and the positive effects this has had on you and others.
  6. Finally, take time to do other things you enjoy. Reconciliation is one goal we are striving toward, but we all have other goals and efforts we are involved in, personally, in our families, and in our faith communities. No one goal should become the sole focus of our energy and life or we will neglect other emotional, spiritual and social needs. We encourage you to be involved in reconciliation, but not to allow it to be your sole focus.        


Discouragement is something we must deal with personally and communally, regardless of our involvement in reconciliation. Like other areas of life, reconciliation participants and leaders will deal with feelings and periods of discouragement. Reconciliation calls for a change not only in our hearts, but in our society. When there is no immediate change in society, we can feel that we are failing in our task. It is important to find opportunities to discuss these feelings and take time to deal with them appropriately. Having the proper attitude toward discouragement, and the tools to deal with it, will enable you to continue your journey of reconciliation and help others in the process, as well.


Brinkley, Douglas. Rosa Parks: A Life. New York: Penguin Books, 2000.

“How Long? Not Long!” By Martin Luther King, Jr. Speech delivered in Montgomery, Alabama 25 March 1965. You Tube. Last accessed February 2011.

King, Coretta Scott. Introduction to Strength to Love, by Martin Luther King, Jr. Philadelphia: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1981.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “A New Sense of Direction.” Speech presented to the staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Frogmore, South Carolina, 1968.

———. “Social Justice.” Speech presented at the Conscience of America Lecture Symposium at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan, December 18, 1963. Last accessed April 21, 2011.

———. “Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Global Freedom Struggle.

Excerpt from his book Stride Toward Freedom. Last accessed February 2011. http://mlk- onviolence1/   

“MLK – A Knock at Midnight.” By Martin Luther King, Jr. Detroit Area Library Network. February 2011.             B&term=224690.