What does it mean to be “maladjusted”? In much of psychological literature, maladjustment implies some level of psychopathology. A pathology implies an underlying illness or disease in the body. Psychopathology, therefore, implies mental illness. Unlike other diseases of the body that have biological markers, however, psychopathology does not have a biological test, like a blood test, for diagnosis. Instead, psychopathology is manifested in cognitions, emotions, and/or social behaviors that are considered maladaptive because they cause distress, danger, dysfunction, and disruption both to the individual and to those around her/him.
But are there any conditions under which it would be “abnormal” not to experience maladjustment? This is the question taken up by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his speech given at Western Michigan University in 1963, five years before he was assassinated. In this speech, he suggested that there are specific conditions when maladjustment is called for:
“[T]here are certain things in our nation and in the world which I am proud to be maladjusted and which I hope all men of good‐will will be maladjusted until the good societies realize. I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, to self‐defeating effects of physical violence.” (1)
Whether or not maladjustment always equates to a diagnosis of psychopathology is often asked beyond the academic hallways of departments of psychology. Shouldn’t it make sense for someone who grew up in conditions of economic deprivation, social isolation, ignorance, poverty, and crime to experience, trauma, depression, or anxiety? Isn’t maladjustment an appropriate response to environmental and social conditions of deprivation, isolation, and instability? And perhaps, as Martin Luther King Jr. suggested in his address: those of us who live in abundance, community, and stability should feel this maladjustment most keenly.
In many of his speeches, including the one given at Western Michigan University, Dr. King quoted from the ancient Hebrew prophets. Often, Israel’s prophets called the nation to see the ways in which she had “adjusted” to a way of living that was far from ideal. And we learn from the preaching of Jesus that most of these prophets were rejected and killed. “Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those sent to you!”(2) The prophets called out from the margins proclaiming a message that few heeded. They were viewed as “malcontents” and perhaps as maladjusted. Isaiah walked through the streets naked. Jeremiah, “the weeping prophet,” fastened a cattle yoke to his shoulders. Hosea married a woman he knew would be unfaithful. Ezekiel ate a scroll and laid on his side for more than a year. Jonah spent three days in the belly of a whale and then begged God to kill him. And Amos, who wanted “justice to roll down like mighty rivers” brought his message of justice and righteousness in a time of total economic prosperity and ease: “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion!” he declared. To be “well-adjusted” was not at all what they preached, nor often how they lived. As Abraham Joshua Heschel in his book The Prophets notes:
“To us a single act of injustice—cheating in business, exploitation of the poor—is slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence; to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world.”(3)
The ancient prophets call attention to what most overlook, or do not want to see. Like, Martin Luther King, Jr., they understood that the call to maladjustment was a call to action and a call to reject the status quo. But to extend this call, often meant being labeled as a malcontent, or crazy, or worse! Throughout history, those who called for “maladjustment” often lost their lives, including the Hebrew prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus, Gandhi, Anwar Sadat, Yitzhak Rabin, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Remarkably, Dr. King ended his remarks with a call to be as maladjusted as the prophet Amos:
“I’m about convinced now that there is need for…men and women who will be as maladjusted as the prophet Amos. Who in the midst of the injustices of his day could cry out in words that echo across the centuries, ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ As maladjusted as Jesus of Nazareth who could say to the men and women of his day, ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you. Pray for them that despitefully use you.’ Through such maladjustment, I believe that we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice…this will be a great day.”(4)
The call to maladjustment might just be a call to justice. To overturn the status quo, just as Jesus overturned the tables in the temple, might be the most well-adjusted thing we who are made in God’s image could do.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “On Creative Maladjustment,” Western Michigan University Archives and Regional History Collections and University Libraries, 1963, accessed Jan. 27, 2018.
(2) See Matthew 23:37. See also Hebrews 11:26-39.
(3) Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 4.
(4) Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “On Creative Maladjustment,” Western Michigan University Archives and Regional History Collections and University Libraries, 1963, accessed Jan. 27, 2018.