Writer, editor, stumbler after Jesus

Arthur’s Law

IT’S ACCEPTED WISDOM, thanks to the recovery community, that we are as sick as our secrets. But I learned from Arthur the gnome that, sometimes, what we don’t let out can be a sign of our great health.

It all depends whether those secrets are the bad things we do to ourselves, or the good things we do for others.

Jesus’s talk about how those who pray loudly in public and give ostentatiously have got their reward here and now suggests to me that somehow God is able to do more with anonymous gifts (and prayers) than those delivered in public. I’m not quite sure how this works, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that when we want to take center stage, we stand in the way of the light and cast some shadows.

This makes me a bit uncomfortable with some of the public face of charitable support. At one level I know there’s a significant potential advocacy aspect to announcing that I have given to such-and-such effort. But there’s also a measure of smugness which makes me wonder whether the message isn’t more, “Look at me!” than “Look at that!”

When you’re confident in who you are—and at peace with who you are not—you don’t need to get a pat on the back. The action itself, what you do for someone else who will never be able to say thank you, can be reward enough.

There’s also something tantalizing about the mystery of anonymity. To this day, there is someone out there—maybe even two, three, or a group of people—behind a story I reported as a young journalist that went round the world, and still gets echoed from time to time more than three decades later.

I was working on an evening newspaper in the industrial British Midlands when a teacher friend told me about what had happened to one of his middle-grade students. She lived in nondescript municipal housing with her working-class family. They distinguished their drab frontage from the rest of the street with a colorful front yard featuring a stone garden gnome popular in a slightly declasse sort of way.

One morning the family came downstairs to find a handwritten letter on the carpet, pushed through the front door mail slot. It said that the family had ignored him and mistreated him for too long, so he was leaving to travel the world. It was signed, Arthur the Gnome. They opened the front door and, sure enough, there was a gap in the yard where he had been cemented in place.

The first postcard arrived a few days later, from London’s Gatwick Airport, just before he boarded his flight. Over the next eighteen months or so, more than a dozen others followed from all over the world.

The feelgood story I had stumbled across about this average family with the extraordinary gnome went around the world (along with Arthur), prompting copycat garden creature runaways that continue sporadically to this day. The cards kept coming at regular intervals until one morning someone in the family opened their front door, and there was Arthur on the front doorstep.

He had a tan, and a small suitcase covered with stickers from his travels.

The family had no idea who was behind it all, or why they had been selected. No one ever came forward to claim responsibility. Bear in mind, too, that the perpetrator(s) hadn’t even sought publicity in the first place; I had just fallen across the plot. The actions were delightful, but the silence made them even more delicious, somehow. By staying behind the scenes, those responsible only enhanced the drama, heightened the impact.

Maybe that’s why we don’t know the name of the little boy whose lunchbox served five thousand, or, popular belief notwithstanding, the names of the kings who followed the Bethlehem star. Let’s call it Arthur’s Law: the power of a-gnome-imity.

Revised from The Arthur effect: good secrets, published May 13, 2013.

Photo on Foter.com

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