Here is an analysis of Kent M. Keith’s poem The Paradoxical Commandments. This is a wildly popular poem that has enraptured many readers, including Mother Teresa, who was said to have had a variation of this poem hanging in her children’s home in Calcutta. In fact, because of this connection, this poem is often wrongly attributed to Mother Teresa. Keith wrote this poem when he was just nineteen years old and a student at Harvard College. A highly educated man, Keith is known for his achievements in law, writing, and education. While most of his writing deals with education, he is also a noted writer of Christian texts. Born and raised in Hawaii, he currently lives in Honolulu with his family. The Paradoxical Commandments is an inspirational poem that details how one should go about living a kind and giving life, even though it can sometimes seem fruitless.
The Paradoxical Commandments Summary
The Paradoxical Commandments almost serves as a guide on how one should live one’s life. With each piece of advice, a paradox is presented. For instance, the speaker tells the reader that “people are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. Love them anyway.” Even though people are not always good or reasonable, it should not prevent one from loving and caring for them. In total, ten commandments are given, just like in the Old Testament of the Bible. While the commandments presented in this poem are not particularly religious, they do present themes that are also prevalent in the Bible. These themes include loving others, being a good and honest person, and helping those around you.
Breakdown Analysis of The Paradoxical Commandments
From a technical standpoint, this poem, which can be read in full here, is very simplistic; Keith uses no fancy poetic devices or figurative language to further his point, but the simplicity of the poem is what helps to make it so beautiful. The poem is fairly short in length. Keith’s work is broken into ten stanzas, each containing a couplet, or two lines. It has been said that Keith originally did not intend for the work to be a poem, but it is often broken into a poetic form. That being said, the poem utilizes free verse and the lines do not have a set meter.
The speaker of the poem, presumably Kent M. Keith, immediately begins the poem with the first commandment. There is no easing in for the reader; from the very first line, the reader is given a commandment to follow. The first couplet reads:
People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered./Love them anyway.
The speaker tells the reader that he or she must love all people, even in spite of the fact that they may be hard to love. They may be selfish, silly, and stubborn, but the speaker commands the reader to love them anyway. This first couplet also sets up the style Keith keeps for the entirety of the poem: he presents the negative side of the paradox first; the second line of the couplet always informs the reader that one should do something positive anyway.
With the second couplet, the speaker is instructing the reader to do good acts, even though most people will probably assume the acts were done for selfish reasons. Even though this may be true, it is not a valid enough reason to not do good works. With this second stanza, it is important to discuss Keith’s use of repetition in the poem. In every couplet, after presenting the negative implications of each couplet, Keith ends the couplet with the word “anyway.” The use of repetition with this word helps the reader to plainly see the paradox that is presented in each commandment, and it emphasizes the need for the reader to continue living a good and virtuous life even though it is not the easiest path one can take.
In the third couplet, Keith’s diction is absolute: If you do this, this will surely happen. In this case, if one is lucky enough to find success, he or she will most certainly also find friends who are not invested in the relationship in order to gain something. In addition to false friends, the person who has found success will also find true enemies who are jealous and will try to undermine the successful reader. Keith does not used the words “may” or “might”: he warns the reader that these untrustworthy people will certainly come with the success gained.
By the fourth commandment the reader has picked up on the optimistic tone of the poem. The speaker is certainly see a glass that is half full. Even though something negative will come of someone’s goodness, it is important to still do good acts. In this stanza, the speaker is informing the reader that the good acts that are done today will certainly be forgotten tomorrow. However, that does not mean one should not do them. Every day is another opportunity to do something good for others, even if that means the good act will be forgotten so quickly.
The speaker then gives the fifth paradoxical commandment. To be frank means to be open and honest, and so the speaker is telling the reader that by being open and truthful, the reader will also be made vulnerable and susceptible to being criticized or taken advantage of. In spite of this, the reader must choose to “be honest and frank anyway.”
The sixth commandment presents the most complex piece of advice. The speaker is informing the reader that often, the “smallest men and women” are the ones who shoot down the ideas presented by the biggest and brightest. Here, smallest most probably means jealous and stupid, and biggest obviously means brightest and talented. This commandment fits nicely with the third commandment that deals with success. Even though people will try to undermine you, that should not stop you from being creative and innovative.
The seventh commandment deals with the two different types of people in the world. In this little nugget of wisdom, the speaker is suggesting that in theory, everyone wants the person who has more to overcome to win, but in reality, they usually cheer and follow the people with the easier path. In spite of this, the speaker implores, help the underdogs when possible. This commandment can apply to many facets in life, ranging from politics to even the corporate world. The speaker seems to be suggesting that the underdog’s life is hard enough; one does not need to add to this burden by wishing them ill.
In the eighth commandment, again, like the seventh commandment, this commandment applies to all areas of life. One could spend years building a business, and in the blink of an eye, that business and all that one worked so hard to create could come crashing down. The same could be said for relationships. This does not mean, however, that one should not try to build something valuable and lasting. In fact, one should build in spite of potential destruction.
With the penultimate commandment of The Paradoxical Commandments, the speaker recognizes how easily this could discourage the reader, but he tells the reader that they must help people even if that help is not appreciated or shunned. Helping someone, ultimately, is the right thing to do.
Finally, the tenth commandment reads:
Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth./Give the world the best you have anyway.
This commandment is much broader than the other nine; it is general and non-specific. The speaker is simply saying that doing one’s best will not always reap rewards or benefits. In fact, sometimes one will be shot down even though they have given the best that they have. This does not mean, however, that one should not always give their best.
Keith presents a very realistic portrait of the world in his poem. Even though the world is filled with people who are not always giving their best or being kind, he is imploring his reader to always do the right thing in every situation. These truly are words the reader can apply to every facet of their life and practice on a daily basis.
Keith initially included The Paradoxical Commandments in a pamphlet he wrote for leaders while studying at Harvard. It quickly became popular, and thus spread quickly. While there was not one incident that inspired him to write these words to live by, they have truly inspired many people around the globe, including, as mentioned previously, Mother Teresa.