Overcoming the “Drum major instinct”

Dr. Martin Luther king Jr. has delivered many powerful sermons as pastor at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. One of these sermons was delivered on February 4, 1968.  In this sermon Dr. King states, “Deep down within all of us is an instinct. It is kind of drum major instinct – a desire to be out front, a desire to lead a parade, a desire to be first. And it is something that runs a whole gamut of life….. We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade….. this desire for attention, this desire for distinction is the major impulse, the basic drive of human life – this drum major instinct. http://www.amazon.com/Have-Dream-Writings-Speeches-Anniversary/dp/0062505521

Dr. King provides in his speech many examples of the evidences of the drum major instinct in our daily life. He also points out some of the pernicious outcomes of this drum major instinct. Following are a few excerpts: Nobody is unhappy when they are praised, even if they know they don’t deserve it. The only people unhappy about praise are when that praise is going too much toward somebody else. But everybody likes to be praised because of this drum major instinct……It often causes us to live above our means …. It causes us to live our life outdoing the Joneses…..There comes a time when the drum major instinct becomes destructive. ….. if it is not harnessed, it becomes a very dangerous, pernicious instinct…. It causes one’s personality distorted. … It leads to snobbish exclusivism. This is the danger of social clubs and fraternities. ……… The drum major instinct can lead to exclusivism in one’s thinking. …. Because he has some economic security he’s a little better than the person who does not have it. It leads to tragic racial prejudice.

It is valuable to reflect on this drum major instinct as we assess our accomplishments for the year that is ending and set the goals for the New Year that is about to dawn. Do you feel a sense of inner satisfaction for all that you have accomplished and achieved in the past year or do you feel a sense of letdown after all these results because someone has not recognized you for all that, or you think that you have not done better than Mr. or Mrs. Jones or someone has not satisfied your drum major instinct?

As you gather around the table for the holiday meal do you recognize and praise others for their genuine role, accomplishments and contributions in life or are you merely feeding their drum major instinct? Are you willing to share your genuine and heartfelt thoughts and emotions or are you merely speaking to be visible to satisfy your drum major instinct?

As we grow older we find it impossible to tally the score between what is genuinely right vs. those that are recognized as such. As a result we suffer from our drum major instinct. This could lead to a tendency to shrink and shy away from what is right and seek out the activities that are visible and satisfy our drum major instinct. We may fail to educate the children for learning and knowledge. Instead we may seek education that brings glory through certificates, awards and recognition exclusively. We may fail to recognize failure as a stepping stone for success. Instead we may hide our failures and wanting to highlight only that we see as success. The never ending drum major instinct impels us to be engaged in an unending chain of activities. Pausing for a while and “smelling the rose” is given up in our rush for the next role as a drum major.

We have described earlier that all our activities are influenced by three tendencies: Ignorance, bias for impulsive action/turbulence and knowledge/understanding. https://sipractce.wordpress.com/2011/05/25/anatomy-of-our-experiences-objectivity-the-end-result/ Drum major instinct may be seen as a result of the dominance of turbulence in our state of mind. It arises out of ego: a self-image that promotes the “I am responsible for” attitude. Bagwath Geetha summarizes the role of ego – drum major instinct – in action:

Turbulence or agitated activity is rooted in excessive desires or passion (Drum major instinct) and it arises out of association and attachments with worldly needs. The tendency for these agitated activities binds a person to the endless chain of activities.    B.g. 14.7

When agitated activity prevails, a person is drawn into greed or desires of endless nature, driven by intense need for recognition, initiation of innumerable activities, unease and longing.       B.G. 14.12

At a time of crisis the increased level of agitated activity leads a person to a further relentless chain of activities. B.G. 14.15.

It is said that the result of virtuous acts are tranquility and clarity of purpose. The result of agitated activity is sorrow. Inertia and procrastination are the fruits of ignorance.            B.G. 14.16.

We have also described earlier that all the three tendencies – ignorance, bias (ego) and knowledge co-exist all the time. https://sipractce.wordpress.com/2011/03/12/anatomy-of-our-experience-%e2%80%93-understanding-the-connectors/

Hence no one may be free of the drum major instinct. Dr. King recognizes this unenviable reality. He suggests that if drum major instinct is unavoidable then let such instinct be focused on larger themes that uplifts the society as a whole. He continues “Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was drum major for justice and say that I was a drum major for peace; I was drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind”.

The above gives us a very good guideline as we set our goals for the coming year. Let those goals be what you wish to do, what you need to do, but with a purpose that is larger than the mere drum major instinct.

Best wishes for a Happy New Year ! – 2016.


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2 Responses to Overcoming the “Drum major instinct”

  1. sipractce says:

    An excellent post. One can go further.
    If the chain of activities resulting from the “Drum Major Instinct” (as described above in BG 14 – 7, 12, 15) does not produce the desired effect, then the result will be as described below:
    Reflecting or dwelling on the sense objects (body and its needs), a person gets attached to them. From this attachment or affinity arise all desires; from these desires anger or envy is born . B.G. 2.62
    From envy confusion is born and from confusion the loss of memory (or clear vision or purpose on life). When the clarity in vision is lost, it leads to lack of reasoning or analytical skills, which further leads to the “death” of the person. B.G. 2.63.


  2. askaranth says:

    Your post was marvelous. Liked it very much… of course truth is continuously debated in mind, but need to be practiced seriously, that is the challenge in every similar subject we come across. Thanks Karanth India


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