10 Paradoxical Commandments for Life

In Poems by Emerson Jane BrowneLeave a Comment

Yesterday, on the first day of 2013, a friend sent the following poem to me as a blessing for the new year.  I am sharing it here because it touched my heart and also because it is related to the recalibrating I wrote about yesterday.

I had gotten off track because I had become too worried about “what people think”.  I had stopped being vulnerable on this blog because I was worried that I had to hold myself up to some lofty standard since I am starting to write and speak about brain injury more.  I also think the challenge of job hunting fed into that.  When job hunting you are constantly being judged.  No way around that one!  So the sum total of that left me feeling like I was not being true to myself in quite a few areas of my life.  None of it was major but it added up to a feeling of discomfort.

This poem is about getting back on track with how I want to live my life.


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

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

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

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

If you are honest, people may cheat you
Be honest anyway.

The biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest minds
Think big anyway.

What you spend years building , someone could destroy overnight
Build anyway.

People need help, but may attack you if you try to help
Help people anyway.

Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough
Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.

You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God.
It was never between you and ‘them’ anyway.

Original poem by Kent Keith
Folk-processed changes by author unknown.


The Paradoxical Commandments were written by Kent M. Keith when he was 19, a sophomore at Harvard College. He wrote them as part of a book for student leaders entitled The Silent Revolution: Dynamic Leadership in the Student Council, published by Harvard Student Agencies in 1968. The Paradoxical Commandments subsequently spread all over the world, and have been used by millions of people.

Mother Teresa put the Paradoxical Commandments up on the wall of her children’s home in Calcutta. The fact that the commandments were on her wall was reported in a book compiled by Lucinda Vardey, Mother Teresa: A Simple Path, which was published in 1995. As a result, some people have attributed the Paradoxical Commandments to Mother Teresa.1

Dr. Keith is troubled by the ending of the above poem because in his view “The statement that “it was never between you and them anyway” seems to justify giving up on, or ignoring, or discounting other people.”2

I found his view and his analysis of that stanza fairly shocking!  I read it entirely differently. To me it addresses the issue of holding back because you are worried about what others may think. The whole poem is about doing good things in spite of what people may think, do, or say to try to thwart you.

Marianne Williamson speaks directly to this in her poem “Our Deepest Fear” when she says

There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.3

As an interesting side note, Marianne Williamson’s poem is often misattributed to Nelson Mandela!


  1. http://www.kentmkeith.com/mother_teresa.html
  2. Ibid
  3. A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles”, Ch. 7, Section 3 (1992) [There is an interesting history of that quote here: http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Marianne_Williamson]
Emerson Jane Browne
I am Emerson Jane Browne. I write about Brains, Apps, & Productivity, and many other aspects of Life. I speak to TBI support groups, speak and teach workshops at tech, music, and writer conferences. I consult with organizations on strategic planning and building a strong community.