Footprints in the Collective Unconscious?
December 2, 2007 10:11 AM   Subscribe

Footprints in the Collective Unconscious? Brooklyn writer Rachel Aviv presents an interesting summary of the disputed 'facts' behind who it was exactly that God inspired to write those ubiquitous religious-themed and -memed "Footprints in the Sand" poem(s).

Previously on mefi: 1 2
posted by NetizenKen (35 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Or 'whom' God inspired, dammit.
posted by NetizenKen at 10:15 AM on December 2, 2007

When you saw only one set of footprints...
     ...I was riding your ass, you lout!
posted by five fresh fish at 10:17 AM on December 2, 2007

I'm generally against the death penalty but that poem really deserves a good draw-and-quartering of the author.
posted by cmonkey at 10:24 AM on December 2, 2007

Quite so, cmonkey. This is the sort of "poem" that persuades people that there is no art to poetry, that all one needs to do is write prose with peculiar line breaks.
posted by QuietDesperation at 10:36 AM on December 2, 2007

The poem itself is a monument of kitsch, but it's fascinating the way the absence of an author creates such a profound vacuum that several different people are rushing in to fill it. If I had to place a wager, my guess is none of them is the real author.

Oh and, The Onion FTW.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 10:41 AM on December 2, 2007

The literary qualities of that particular piece of Christian doggerel notwithstanding, it's an interesting dispute. How do you deal with competing claims to something that was apparently distributed informally and without regard to copyright or ownership for many years? I don't think there's any way to resolve it -- I'd love it if there were a way to just have the thing thrown into the public domain and be done with it.

It would be interesting to follow up on the first guy (in the article)'s claim that he had it published without attribution in a newspaper; perhaps as more archives and books are put online, it'll become easier to search for the first published instance of a work such as this.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:46 AM on December 2, 2007 was then I was riding my pogo stick.
posted by sourwookie at 10:57 AM on December 2, 2007 [6 favorites]

A quick rummage through Google Books turns up the story in a 1980 book Three Steps Forward, Two Steps Back: Persevering Through Pressure by Charles R. Swindoll. Also in a 1980 collection The practice of psychology in the 1980's : papers read at the 17th Annual Convention of the Psychological Association of the Philippines, Manila, August 25-27, 1980. Which is odd.
posted by LarryC at 10:57 AM on December 2, 2007

A friend and I once tried to adapt that poem for bedridden paraplegics where instead of footprints, Jesus' presence was symbolized by an additional Jesus-shaped mattress depression. Tasteless enough, I guess, but what was going on when there was only one mattress depression?
posted by logicpunk at 11:01 AM on December 2, 2007

You may not know this but I wrote this poem in 1962. Honestly.

Are you going to Scarborough fair?
(Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme)
Remember me to one who lives there;
She once was a true love of mine.

Tell her to make me a cambric shirt
(Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme)
Without no seams, nor needlework;
Then she'll be a true love of mine.

posted by ersatz at 11:08 AM on December 2, 2007

In “Cryptomnesia” (1905), a paper about accidental plagiarism, Carl Jung argues that it’s impossible to know for certain which ideas are one’s own. “Our unconsciousness . . . swarms with strange intruders,” he writes. He accuses Nietzsche of unwittingly copying another’s work, and urges all writers to sift through their memories and locate the origin of every idea before putting it to paper: “Ask each thought: Do I know you, or are you new?”

As a writer, I live in fear of this. I know of at least one time that I accidently stole a joke from PJ O'Rourke -- I didn't realize it until much later when I re-read the book I took it from.
posted by Bookhouse at 11:09 AM on December 2, 2007

Logicpunk, it's obvious to me. The answer is love.
posted by Weighted Companion Cube at 11:10 AM on December 2, 2007

Pagan version:
Baphomet: "That was when I was kicking your ass down the beach."

Erisian version:
Eris: "That was when we both hopped on one foot."
posted by lekvar at 11:11 AM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

That I one of those religious memes that become the type aphorism that require you to never THINK about it in order to gain any comfort.

When my sister in law died people said that kind of shit to my wife... "It's all gods plan" "let god carry you now."

It's NOT a comfort. My wife said to me "If god can't get the universe to run without murdering my sister... then what the hell good is he? I'd rather believe he had nothing to do with it."

What she wanted to hear was "I loved your sister, too." or "I am so sorry. If there is anything we can do just ask." The subject of her grief was her sister. Not god.

The despicable thing about people telling you the person you love is dead because it's "gods plan" and you need to "surrender your pain to god" is that, it doesn't make you feel better and THEY arn't really offering anything but are asking you to go to this great religious transformation at a time you are utterly broken.

So you feel guilty like "I guess god doesn't love me or my sister very much."

All this never made much sense to me.
posted by tkchrist at 11:13 AM on December 2, 2007 [13 favorites]

Kinda like Harvey Ball's smiley face. He never applied for a trademark or copyright and earned just $45 for his work in creating it.
posted by ericb at 11:17 AM on December 2, 2007

I'm surprised it took three posts to get to that Onion link. It's the first and only thing I think about whenever I hear about this poem.
posted by gerryblog at 12:16 PM on December 2, 2007

This is nothing, you should see the lawsuits Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John threw around.
posted by L. Fitzgerald Sjoberg at 12:57 PM on December 2, 2007

That was a really interesting read, thank you. The parts about cultural amnesia and the internet are fascinating.
posted by jokeefe at 1:03 PM on December 2, 2007

posted by tellurian at 1:21 PM on December 2, 2007

Judgment Day

“Your name sir?” asks Jesus
“I don’t know” replies the man.
Again the old man replies that he doesn’t recall.
“Number of children?”
“No clue” says the man.
Somewhat exasperated, Jesus starts anew. “Your name really isn’t that
important. However, your occupation is. Please concentrate sir; what
did you do for a living, how did you gain your livlihood?”
The old man, lost in thought, slowly starts to piece it together.
“Well” he says “I can recall working with my hands a lot. In fact,
looking at the splinters in my palms, I’d have to say that I was a
“Excellent and honorable occupation sir. Well done! Now for the next
step: How many, if any, children did you have?”
Once again the old man furrows his brow and tries desperately to
remember. After a long while he says “I’m almost sure I had one child
and since I can’t remember any dresses or dolls, I’m sure the child
was a boy. And one more thing, this boy of mine was ostracized because
he had holes in his hands, his feet, and his sides”.
Finally piecing the story together, Jesus jumps to his feet, the
ultimate realization of who he has encountered striking him like a bolt
of lightning. With tears in his eyes, he yells “Father!!”
The old man, equally moved, rises and screams “Pinocchio!!”

posted by Brian B. at 1:24 PM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

This reminds me of that poem I once read about civil war soldiers and a pterodactyl. For some reason I can't find it right now...
posted by Tube at 2:20 PM on December 2, 2007 [2 favorites]

I'm generally against the death penalty but that poem really deserves a good draw-and-quartering of the author.

Not one of my favorites either, but it appears to have brought comfort to millions, which probably outweighs the minor irritation it may have brought to you or me.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:32 PM on December 2, 2007

The despicable thing about people telling you the person you love is dead because it's "gods plan" and you need to "surrender your pain to god" is that, it doesn't make you feel better and THEY arn't really offering anything but are asking you to go to this great religious transformation at a time you are utterly broken.

That's a really obnoxious thing to say to somebody under any circumstance. Once when I was going through a semi-major tragedy someone tried that "all God's plan" line on me, and I told them that if they ever said something so stupid and insensitive to a hurting person again, I would spend the rest of my career preaching about what a hideous, heretical idea that was. Probably wasn't one of my better moments, but I do think that there's one less person in the world who spouts off pious platitudes to people whose lives are falling apart. Every now and then it's handy to be a pastor.

"I really loved your sister, too" seems a lot closer to me to how Jesus would have responded to such sorrow.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 3:33 PM on December 2, 2007 [3 favorites]

Well, hearing the "its God's will" stuff, following the death of a loved one isn't my idea of comforting, but it beats what one person did after my father died.

My family is atheist, and the woman in question was an evangelical Christian who never missed an opportunity to annoy others with lectures about her faith (I think she called this odeous personal habit "wittnessing"). She sent us a sympathy card, relatively plain and unthreatening, and on the inside wrote that we should all think about where my father was now (Hell), and what action we should take to avoid a similar fate.

Yup, nothing like losing a parent and getting a "he's being tortured for all time, and if you don't join my spiritual protection racket you will be too" message. After that I saw all the "its God's plan" type comments as being at least civil.
posted by sotonohito at 4:26 PM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

I prefer the version that ends " child, where you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I went surfing."
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:11 PM on December 2, 2007

What I find interesting about the whole thing is the fact that whenever the poem was originally published, it was apparently unimportant to copyright it.

At the time the poem was written, the concept of copyright, of infringement, of the whole Mickey Mouse law circus that we're stuck with today...just didn't even factor into the person's decisions.

But since many of the principle players (competing authors, companies who they sold their rights to, publishers who produce different versions, etc) survived and live in a time in which copyright and legitimate ownership matter a great deal (not that these things didn't matter in the 1960s or whenever this was written, but they presumably didn't matter as much), we now have an argument that is difficult to resolve.
posted by librarylis at 9:51 PM on December 2, 2007

"The Little Engine That Could" is also a story with no known author. "Watty Piper" (author for the most popular edition) was a name shared by several authors at publisher Platt & Munk.
posted by eccnineten at 9:57 PM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

Good points, librarylis, but I'm not sure if it's about time as much as about place and access to information.

In all four versions of the story, it's said that the poem was largely passed around by hand. I'm going to make a somewhat dangerous generalization here, but let's assume that most of this distribution is happening in small communities in rural areas, places where intellectual property law might not have been discussed at the corner pub.

Now, with greater access to information, these same people know about DMCA notices and cease and desist letters.
posted by roll truck roll at 10:06 PM on December 2, 2007

I've seen a version of the footprints poem in Spanish, on a poster. Maybe it was imported.
posted by Brian B. at 11:01 PM on December 2, 2007

Although several people have suggested to Webb, as consolation, that God gave the idea to multiple authors in order to more efficiently spread His Word, Webb is unsettled by the idea that “the Lord would be the author of confusion.”

Er, what universe does this guy live in?
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:22 PM on December 3, 2007

When you just see the lone set of footprints, that's when Jesus is raping your butt again.
posted by kenlayne at 10:50 PM on December 3, 2007

I always want to ask, if Jeebus Gawd is so omnipotent, why did he have to *carry* me through my worst times? Why couldn't he have helped me walk *around* them in the first place rather than a) going on that first date with the bitch; b) taking that first hit on a nicotine delivery device; or c) letting my friend drive away drunk . . .?

As usual, Jeebus Gawd, thanks a lot. For nothing.
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:13 AM on December 4, 2007

PS -- situations a-c are entirely hypothetical and do not refer to actual persons.
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:39 AM on December 4, 2007

Had anybody else never heard of this 'poem' before this thread?
posted by signal at 10:29 AM on December 4, 2007

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