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Going viral before the Internet was a rare feat but not unheard of. One piece of writing that turned up here, there and everywhere in the last decades of the 20th century was “The Paradoxical Commandments.”

If you have come across this short treatise, it may have been under the title “Anyway.” The lines begin: “People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered/ Love them anyway.” They proceed in this vein, outlining the grief you will incur by doing the right thing but insisting that it be done regardless. Often the piece appears with a note mentioning that it was posted on the wall of Mother Teresa’s children’s home in Calcutta; sometimes the lines are erroneously attributed to her. In many versions, it ends: “You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God/ It was never between you and them anyway.”

I never liked those concluding lines. They suggest a preciousness and spiritual pride blended with disdain: I am God’s good little child, and what I am doing is really for him, not others. It dismayed me to think that Mother Teresa would mentally sequester herself in this way.

Eventually, I Googled around, and it was not difficult to uncover that the troubling ending was added by an unknown embellisher; it was not in the original version that Mother Teresa implicitly endorsed. Without it, “The Paradoxical Commandments” peal out a truth that’s not, on its surface, what anyone wants to hear: Doing right is its own reward. And it was formulated by, of all people, a teenager, urging his peers to ground their crusades to change the world in basic humility.

A handbook for student leaders

Kent Keith was a Harvard undergrad in 1968 when he published the “Commandments” as part of a handbook he wrote for student government leaders. In it, he called on youth to reject showboating in favor of low-profile, efficacious strategies for change. Even in those days, when narcissism was generally frowned upon, this was a tough sell.

But Keith, a lay Christian, felt it was necessary. During college, he was involved in leadership mentoring and gave speeches to student council workshops and conferences across the country. In his 2021 book The Paradox of Personal Meaning, he wrote about what he observed in his generation: “They gave up, because the change they sought was not happening, and people did not appreciate what they were trying to do. I told them they needed to love people, because love is one of the only motivations that is strong enough to keep you with the people and with the process until change is achieved.”

His 1968 handbook, The Silent Revolution: Dynamic Leadership in the Student Council, did not linger on the subject of love as such. It just collected Keith’s thoughts on how to achieve incremental but reliable change by prioritizing the common good over one’s own public image. Fifty-six years later, following seismic changes in media, most young people have a “public image” in a truer sense than Keith’s generation could have imagined. In this new era of student activism, the challenge of doing the right thing for the right reasons is exponentially steeper. And Keith’s clarity is still preternaturally mature.

***

Reading The Silent Revolution is a curious experience. The voice is quaint and many of its examples trite, which makes you imagine Keith’s audience as teens from an earlier time: bobby-socked, clean-cut, more preoccupied with homecoming than the Tet offensive or the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. But its insights—which fall into that zone of things which are obviously wise yet rarely put into practice—offer an overview of the self-denial that true leadership requires at any level.

For example, Keith reminds his readers that the defenders of the status quo are fellow human beings, probably acting in good faith. Rather than see these officials as enemies, students who want to challenge them should seek understanding. Since all of us are fallible in our reasoning, he suggests that we “move forward with a set of ‘tentative conclusions.’ When new knowledge comes to light we have to be flexible. So add a dash of humility to the next decision.” You will not be as secure as someone who takes an absolute stand, but that person’s sense of security is false: “taking absolute stands on many issues is merely a matter of running away from them…. issues today are complex, and must be faced in their full complexity.”

‘The Paradoxical Commandments’ by Keith M. Kent have erroneously been attributed to Mother Teresa, and the final line was added later by an unknown source.
‘The Paradoxical Commandments’ by Keith M. Kent have erroneously been attributed to Mother Teresa, and the final line was added later by an unknown source. 

He has an instinct for basic psychology and its implications. Though he advises getting “properly angry,” his definition of “proper” in this case boils down to replacing verbal protest with effective action. One reason: “constant expressions of [your anger] will easily become a matter of self-righteousness … Nothing gets progress bogged down faster than people who are more interested in their own purity than in doing anything important.” Name-calling and picketing stoke defensiveness, entrenching opposition. If the advisor or principal (here, I read “college administrator”) associates your name with a crisis, then every move you make will trigger in them a fight-or-flight response. Build a relationship with them, and you stand a better chance of getting a fair hearing.

Keith advocates for sensitivity and compassion, but the best word to sum up his approach is“practical.” He is less concerned with proving a point than with aligning protestors’ goals and actions. For example: “If you don’t think there’s enough free speech in the school, should you make so much noise that you get suspended and then can’t talk to anybody about anything?” A strong leader does not need to be dominant in all things but should pick their battles—“maximize your strength by concentrating it.”

Even his admonition to reject black-and-white thinking is grounded in an orientation toward results: “Problems that exist in the gray must be understood in the gray if they are to be solved.” Watching effective leaders in action would make for soporific viewing. They formulate reasonable proposals, identify and then agree to acceptable concessions, and build trust for future negotiation with key players.

There is a common denominator to all of this: an aspiration toward the erasure of ego. Even tolerance for boredom is a sign of humility; a humble person is prepared to do grunt work that isn’t the least bit glamorous if it serves a worthy goal. The revolution, Keith argues, will come “silently,” and it is unlikely that most people will ever know who was responsible. Earning recognition—even respect—is beside the point.

***

The unadulterated Paradoxical Commandments end like this:

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

Give the world the best you have anyway.

No mitigating qualifiers, just the obdurate truth: Stamina is the better part of heroism, and heroism is going to hurt.

And yet, my prevailing response to Keith’s counsel is a sense of refreshment. In a culture mostly inclined to self-deception and pretense, the level of honesty of these simple lines is like a cooling balm.

Keith notes in The Paradox of Personal Meaning that the Paradoxical Commandments have been dubbed, variously, the “personal declaration of independence” and a “no excuses policy.” Their message encapsulates both: freedom from what we cannot control and an obligation to persevere. Freedom and responsibility are always two sides of the same coin.

Far more than in 1968, our culture looks past the less flashy virtues Keith champions: persistence, reasonableness, humility, an ability to compromise, quiet efficacy. We are still plagued by our incurable enthusiasm for style over substance, and a loud voice declaring it will never give an inch is likely to be celebrated and valued for its very intransigence.A positive thing done behind the scenes, meanwhile, is like a tree falling in the forest. If there are no witnesses to like, comment and share, we might reasonably ask whether it has really happened at all.

Then there is Keith’s cheerful promise of thanklessness. Most of us know, in theory, that managing expectations is essential to avoiding disappointment and resentment. If we expect to be ignored or even attacked for doing what we think is right, we might have more stomach for staying in the game despite these insults.

Yet “expect insults” is never the preparation we get. Instead, in a thousand explicit and implicit ways, we are given the message that life is transactional, that meaning lies in tokens of value traded between humans and that we should always look to gain. The preferred token is money, but other ones count: popularity, attention. At the very least, we should do things for acknowledgement or approval.So we support causes and let it be known with bumper stickers, lawn signs and social media posts. We make these displays without much thought as to what we intend them to achieve. It seems clear that what we are after is meaning via the positive regard, the witness, of other humans.

Whoever added the bogus lines to “The Paradoxical Commandments,” maybe this is what they were trying—poorly—to get at. Seeking our reward in the approval of others guarantees misery. But a Christian life is always between you and other people. You are required to love them—actively, through thought and deed—whether they reciprocate or not. Faith is the superpower through which we can realize this unconditional love, because faith gives us the understanding that other people’s disdain, anger or bad-mouthing have no impact on the living water that sustains us.

That water remains, even if it will take generations for our efforts to bear fruit, even if we are not sure the world will change at all. Faith buoys us independent of external rewards or motivators. That is because our conviction is not that any specific desired aim will come to pass, but that our life-giving source will never run dry, whatever earthly events ensue.

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