“The Paradoxical Commandments” Still Stand

Apparently, exceptions can be found for virtually everything we accept as a rule. The latest example is a motivational poster with a message that actually is motivational, not to mention genuinely encouraging, moving, and insightful. Bear in mind that I am aware more than most people of the click-over point between healthy sentiment and maudlin saccharine.

Kent Kieth, 1969

Kent Kieth, 1969

This poster (no graphic art, just text) was hanging in an office I visited. Its message is about perseverance, especially in the face of indifference or opposition from people. It cuts through the excuses we often make about not giving our best because people will not appreciate it, or notice it, or indeed may attack us for it. The simplicity of the message is part of its power. I saw a timeless quality in it, unlike so much that is churned out by the “self-help” industry. You may have seen this one around before, because without promotional effort it has circled the globe in viral fashion (always a good sign). It is called The Paradoxical Commandments.

They were written not by God but by one Kent M. Keith. The story behind them is not what I expected. These Commandments are not by a professional writer and were never intended for wide distribution. It was part of a student government project that Kent Keith took part in as a 19 year-old college sophomore in 1968. The Paradoxical Commandments were something he contributed to a booklet for high school student council members, published that year by Harvard Student Agencies.

Over the ensuing forty-seven years this text has had a way of popping up, and otherwise not going peacefully into oblivion. Numerous self-help books have featured it, with and without properly crediting the now Doctor Keith. The words have something of a religious feel to them, and have been incorporated into many sermons and religious books. Authorship of the piece is often misattributed to Mother Theresa. The Roche Sisters set the words to music as the song “Anyway” on their 2001 album Zero Church. The writers of Superman featured the text in Superman: The Never-Ending Battle, (2004). Taking into account newsletters and email spam, the full list of appearances of this homily will surely never be known.

Paradoxically, Christian scriptures have a humanistic feel in places, as in the Sermon on the Mount, and the heavy emphasis on helping the poor. Although the Paradoxical Commandments were written for a secular purpose, I must assume Dr. Keith had some religious influence in his mind as he wrote them. In any case, this is a universal statement about taking responsibility for your own life and living it right, whatever the feedback you get. Dr. Keith describes his text as a challenge, and said, “You have to keep striving, no matter what, because if you don’t, many of the things that need to be done in our world will never get done.”

The Paradoxical Commandments

By Dr. Kent M. Keith

People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.

If you do good people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.

If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies.
Succeed anyway.

The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway.

The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.
Think big anyway.

People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
Fight for a few underdogs anyway.

What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
Build anyway.

People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
Help people anyway.

Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.
Give the world the best you have anyway.

(c) Copyright Kent M. Keith 1968, renewed 2015



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