On a wall of the weight room in my gym at St. Joseph Medical Center downtown is a quote attributed to Mother Teresa that’s been sneaking up on me for the last few months. Many of you probably already know it:
People are often unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered; forgive them anyway. / If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives; be kind anyway. / If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true friends; succeed anyway. /If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you; be honest and frank anyway. / What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight; build anyway. / If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous; be happy anyway. / The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow; do good anyway. / Give the world your best anyway. / You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God; / It was never between you and them anyway.
That sentiment will be quite unremarkable to the faith community in general and Catholics in particular. Putting your God above all else is pretty much the cornerstone of most religions.
But I think there is meaning in there for the secular world as well, wisdom so profound it has found expression in any number of mundane ways: Don’t sweat the small stuff. Keep your eye on the prize. Stop and smell the roses. I was not put on this earth to live up to your expectations.
Too often we let others’ opinions divert our attention from where it should be, on why we do what we do and for whom we are doing it. Pleasing them becomes, at least in the moment, more important than understanding our purpose in life. It’s the equivalent of straightening up the house before the cleaners get there so they won’t think poorly of us.
And we tend to let the clutter of daily life overwhelm us. How many millions of people have been so caught up in the meetings, schedules and daily frustrations of their jobs that they forgot what they loved about them in the first place?
There’s nothing especially metaphysical in that.
In fact, the original version of the “Do it anyway” mediation doesn’t even mention God. Called “The Paradoxical Commandments,” it was written by Kent M. Keith, who later became president of Pacific Rim Christian University, in 1968 when he was a Harvard University sophomore.
The ending of the piece, as he wrote it, went:
If you give the world the best you have, you may get kicked in the teeth, but give the world the best you have anyway.
The commandments went through many versions, attributed to various people, and one of them ended up on the wall of a children’s home Mother Teresa ran in Calcutta. A 1995 book about her included that version, and it has been attributed to her ever since.
Keith was once asked about the Mother Teresa version (at least the iteration that’s been widely circulated on the Internet), and he said he was troubled by how the ending had been changed:
“ ... they can be read in a way that is inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus, the life of Mother Teresa, and the message of the Paradoxical Commandments themselves. The statement that ‘it was never between you and them anyway’ seems to justify giving up on, or ignoring, or discounting other people.
“That is what Jesus told us we should not do. Jesus said that there are two great commandments — to love God, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. So in the final analysis, it is between you and God, but it is also between you and ‘them.’ And when it comes to them, Jesus made it clear that we have to love people and help people anyway. We can’t give up on them or ignore them or write them off.”
The two versions of the endings provide quite a challenge, I think. We can’t let the opinions of others divert us from what we know should be most important to us. But unless we live on a desert island, we have to accommodate those people, make allowances for the way they perceive us.
I’ve negotiated that anxiety, on the edge of uncertainty, for most of my career. I became an opinion writer to pursue the truth as I saw it, despite the admonitions of so many that the truth was unknowable, including an editor who kept insisting there was no such thing as “reality,” only our individual perceptions of it. Yet, if I do not believe I can convince others that, even if we’ll never know the ultimate truth, it’s worth seeking small glimpses of it, why I am I writing in the first place?
Mother Teresa had something to say about that, too.
A posthumously published book exploring some of her letters revealed a terrible darkness in her, a profound doubt about the self-sacrifice of her mission for the poor, even about the existence of God. “The silence and the emptiness is so great,” she wrote, “that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.”
A philosopher and professor named John Kavanaugh tells of traveling thousands of miles to Calcutta to ask Mother Teresa to pray for him so that he might achieve clarity.
“That I will not do,” she told him.
“I don’t understand. Why not?” he asked.
She smiled and said, “Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.”
Many people were shocked to learn of Mother Teresa’s doubt. It just made me like her more.
Faith does not exist without doubt. The purpose of faith is not to deny doubt but to overcome it. Mother Teresa ignored the opinion of others and worked through the great emptiness inside her to alleviate profound suffering for the world’s most desperate.
Doubt can crush us or inspire us. That’s what I would write on the wall.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at email@example.com.