You know that feeling when you hear or see something – a new invention, a smart idea, a connection – and think, “Hey, that was MY idea!”? Kent Keith, the author of a now-famous list of 10 Paradoxical Commandments, is over that. But the first time he heard his own words of wisdom read aloud by a stranger he was at a total loss for how to respond.
“I was at my Rotary Club meeting a couple of weeks after Mother Teresa’s death,” explains Keith, 55, a senior executive for the YMCA of Honolulu. “A fellow Rotarian stood up to give the thought for the day. He said that in Mother Teresa’s memory he wanted to read a poem she had written. I bowed my head, and he began to read: ‘People are illogical, unreasonable and self-centered. Love them anyway'”
In a moment that Keith still recalls as “completely surreal,” he recognized the writing as his own. He listened, stunned, as the man continued reading the list of aphorisms that Keith had written for a student-leadership manual while a sophomore at Harvard 30 years earlier. Since that time, they’d been words Keith had always striven to live by, but they were not words he was accustomed to hearing publicly presented – much less attributed to an unofficial saint!
“I was so astonished, my vision sort of swam,” recalls Keith. “I had absolutely no idea what to do.” After the meeting, Keith approached the speaker and asked him where he had gotten the piece he had read. “Isn’t it wonderful?” his fellow Rotarian said with a big smile. “Well, actually, I wrote it,” Keith replied. The Rotarian stopped smiling. “He didn’t say a word,” Keith remembers, “but he gave me a look. I don’t know what the look meant to him, but to me it meant ‘You poor, self-delusional megalomaniac!'”
Keith asked him again where he got it, and he said that it was in a book about Mother Teresa, but he couldn’t remember the title. The next night, Keith went to a bookstore and began looking through a shelf of books about Mother Teresa’s life and work. There, in a book called Mother Teresa: A Simple Path, compiled by Lucinda Vardey, he found it: Eight of his 10 original Paradoxical Commandments were reformatted as a poem called “Anyway.” No author was listed: The reference simply said “From a sign on the wall of Shishu Bhavan, the children’s home in Calcutta.”
“It moved me so much that the Commandments had wound up there,” remarks Keith, who with his wife Elizabeth had adopted three children from orphanages in Japan and Romania. “I have enormous respect for Mother Teresa, so I was deeply honored to have my words associated with her. Above all, though, I sensed that it was an important moment of discovery. I got the chills. I felt like laughing and crying at the same time.” Of course, Keith was also understandably curious about how his words had wound up halfway around the world.
Keith embarked on a Web search to find out and was shocked to discover thousands of references to his work – some adapted slightly in word and format – in everything from retirement speeches and graduation ceremonies to annual reports and church sermons. In one form or another, it seemed that Keith’s Paradoxical Commandments had for decades been getting tacked up on walls, tucked into cards and circulated in all sorts of church and school materials. They had also been included in dozens of books – sometimes properly attributed to Keith, sometimes attributed to Mother Teresa (or to rocker Ted Nugent and others), and sometimes simply cited as “anonymous.”
Getting the Word Out
Keith says he has always been far more delighted by the broad distribution and impact of his Commandments than he has been bothered by the lack of accurate attribution. “The way I see it,” he says, “while this expression of words and ideas may be mine, the concepts themselves are fundamental and universal. They are truths that make sense to almost everyone.”
That said, Keith has also been pleased by the new opportunities he’s encountered since having his story told on the front page of The New York Times, writing his own bestselling book Anyway: The Paradoxical Commandments – Finding Personal Meaning in a Crazy World (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2002), and going on a national book tour. The best part of getting all that attention, he says, has been hearing from thousands of people who have made important choices around the Commandments, or whose lives they have otherwise positively touched in some way.
The publication of Anyway, which has now been translated into dozens of languages and released in many foreign countries, recently led to a second book: Do It Anyway: The Handbook for Finding Personal Meaning and Deep Happiness in a Crazy World (Inner Ocean Publishing, 2003). Keith says the purpose of this book, which includes a wide variety of exercises and exploratory questions, is to stimulate more people to embrace the Commandments in creative, practical ways.
The book also provides 40 real-life stories of how the Paradoxical Commandments have been applied in diverse circumstances by different kinds of people, and a final interview-format chapter in which Keith answers frequently asked questions. Keith’s voice here, as throughout the book, is practical and refreshingly straightforward. His emphasis remains on the power of daily choices and the importance of simple pleasures: loving and being loved, enjoying family and friends, knowing what matters most, and doing the right thing even when that doesn’t seem to make much sense. Preachiness, in Keith’s view, has no place here.
“The Paradoxical Commandments have a strong spiritual basis,” notes Keith, “but I never wanted them to send a purely idealistic, ‘safe in the garden’ message. In Do It Anyway, I wanted to bring the Commandments down to earth and show how lots of people are living them on a daily basis, even in very difficult situations. I wanted to share the stories of people who are using these principles to break away from excuses and make the right decisions for the right reasons. To me, that is what is really inspiring.”