Even if you intended no harm, apologize anyway

I am not feeling humorous this week, so I’ll be writing seriously. Per Shakespeare, the difference between comedy and tragedy lies in the ending, not with what happens in the middle. That said, how many of you are familiar with the following?

“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.”

If I asked you who wrote this famous piece, “The Paradoxical Commandments,” your first guess would likely be “Mother Teresa,” as she is the person to whom it is regularly and falsely attributed. In truth, it was written by a man named Kent M. Keith, at the age of 19, as part of a larger piece he did while at Harvard College: “The Silent Revolution: Dynamic Leadership in the Student Council.”

What’s the Mother Teresa connection? Someone saw a version of it hanging on her wall. And from there things took on a life of their own, the way they often do.

I have since had the opportunity to read two books by Keith based on his experience: They are Anyway: The Paradoxical Commandments and Jesus Did it Anyway: The Paradoxical Commandments for Christians. Both books encourage us to do the right thing anyway, even when it’s going to cause pain and suffering and even when we don’t feel like it. Not your average mindless, nightstand reads.

What I find remarkable about Kent is not just the depth of his thought and conviction in crafting the paradoxical commandments at a relatively young age, but the magnanimity with which he handled them being attributed to Mother Teresa and passed around like a cheap date. He thought their message was more important than who received credit for them.

Attribution of creative work is a hot topic with me. I was recently told I cannot write for another publication due to a photo credit issue. I had used a professional photographer’s photo from a Facebook page without seeking permission or giving photo credit. I wasn’t trying to be sneaky and didn’t attempt to take credit for it. My goal had been to call attention to the story subject’s unique accomplishment. I sincerely assumed the photos were public domain – until the photographer raised the issue.

Anyone who has inadvertently caused pain while trying to do good knows intent doesn’t matter. Intentional or not, stepping on someone’s toes still hurts them. I felt terrible to have denied someone credit, sad the story’s subject got put in the middle, dismayed I could no longer write regional feature stories as my form of community-building, and sorry for myself, for the loss of income I need for winter heating bills.

Then I did the unthinkable: I called the photographer and apologized for the harm I had caused. Gulp. Things were understandably tense at first. She hadn’t expected me to call any more than I had. She helped me recognize I had trod on her livelihood, and she came to recognize I had not acted in malice. Further conversation reinforced we had more commonalities than differences. I liked her a lot. She’s a lovely person. We may collaborate in the future.

Neither of us hung up bitter, but better for the experience. As Kent M. Keith might say, “It may be too late to undo the pain and damage you have caused someone. Apologize anyway.” To do otherwise would be a tragedy.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Todd
    Oct 29, 2014 @ 08:04:33

    Thank you. Not comedy but still made me smile.


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