Every time I read something wise or wonderful and see that it was written by “Anonymous,” I cringe. It’s often a cop-out for not finding and crediting the person who actually wrote the piece.
The most flagrant example occurs with the “Serenity Prayer,” most often attributed to “Anonymous.”
The prayer was first prayed in a sleepy little church in Maine. A guest preacher concluded the worship service with a benediction he had penned just for that occasion. One of the congregants greeted the preacher at the back door of the church and inquired about the eloquent prayer. He was so bold as to ask for a copy of it, and the minister simply gave his only copy to the man.
The prayer was so meaningful to the man that he later printed the prayer on his personalized Christmas cards. Others read the prayer and savored its words. Soon the prayer was shared locally, then regionally and widely by others who benefited from its meaning. Alcoholics Anonymous incorporated it in its worldwide ministry, and that only widened its popularity.
The visiting minister that day was Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the last century’s most influential theologians. My friend Charlie Johnson says that “it was Niebuhr’s unsentimental approach to human nature, particularly his doctrine of Christian realism, that helped to shape three generations of ministers and 30 years of US cold war policy.”
Niebuhr is certainly known for these contributions to thoughtful Christian living and thinking, but he is best known for that simple prayer that is often attributed to “Anonymous.”
But it goes deeper than that these days. The Internet makes credibility of authorship almost impossible to verify. E-mail messages are passed around like a virulent rumor. All too often, authorship goes under the lazy “Anonymous,” or it is attributed to the wrong author.
A year ago, I received an e-mail of sayings attributed to Mother Teresa. I assumed they were legitimate and something shared from one of Mother Teresa’s inspirational books on service to humankind. My friend sent the e-mail to eight others.
If you’re like me, all I had was an idealized notion of what Mother Teresa might have said. I was so struck by what I read, I even printed it and stuck it in my sermon illustration files that contain bits and pieces of ideas and words that might be useful for some future speaking opportunity.
In early March, I read a story by David Kirkpatrick in the New York Times about Kent Keith, a vice-president of the Honolulu YMCA. At a Rotary luncheon a few years ago, Keith listened to a speaker repeat the same words of wisdom that I received through an e-mail message: “If you are successful you will win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway. The good you do will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.”
The speaker attributed the saying to Mother Teresa. After the meeting, Keith approached the speaker and boldly said to him, “I actually wrote that.” The speaker looked at him and said flatly, “You poor, delusional megalomaniac.”
But Keith was remembering, not imagining. Now 53 years old, he had published those words over 30 years ago as a 19-year-old Harvard student. It was a collection of motivational sayings he originally penned and published for high school student councils. When he moved to Hawaii after college and law school, he forgot about it.
But rediscovering his self-published work and learning that he was no longer the author sent him on a search. Using the Internet, he discovered that his words were also attributed to Bishop Abel Tendekai Muzorewa of Zimbabwe, the psychiatrist Karl Menninger, a Milwaukee clergyman named Guy Gurath, and a Cleveland high school wrestling coach, Howard Ferguson.
The New York Times article went on to say that the inspirational words were found on Web sites all over the Internet. Cookie entrepreneur Wally Amos had them on his Web site. So did rocker Ted Nugent, DreamWorks-SKG and the English Cocker-Spaniel Club of America. Most recently, the Roches, a folk group of singer-sisters, set the words to music.
“I was totally amazed by everything,” Keith told the Times reporter. So he set out to claim his rightful place as the author of the sayings. He could do that because he had registered a copyright for his words when he originally prepared them in booklet form. Consequently, Penguin Putnam agreed to pay him an advance of $300,000 for the rights to The Paradoxical Commandments, a collection that puts his original 10 theses in print.
Here’s another of his sayings written and published for high schoolers in 1968: “People are illogical, unreasonable and self-centered. Love them anyway. People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs. Fight for a few underdogs anyway.”
Maybe he was saying far more than even he realized.
Keith Herron is pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo.