For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?
Early in 1989, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten climbed to the highest reaches of the best-seller list. Nine months later, the sequel was born. It Was on Fire When I Lay Down on It followed the leader straight to the top. Both books still beam down on a world they analyze and celebrate. The author has not only remained popular with readers; he is also in demand on television and in concert halls. Last February he conducted the Minneapolis Chamber Symphony in the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth -- no mean accomplishment for a man who could not read a note. Next fall he will work with the same musicians in Suite for Kindergarten, a piece he commissioned. One PBS special was broadcast last Thanksgiving; another will air next year. Random House is currently offering a seven-figure contract for the next collection of his thoughts. And the Rev. Robert Fulghum bobs in his houseboat on Lake Washington in Seattle, staring at the words of Matthew 16: 26.
"It's not that I'm ungrateful for all this attention," he says. "It's just that fame and fortune ought to add up to something more than fame and fortune." So these days Fulghum (pronounced Full-jum) tends to write a lot of checks to charities. Then again, he was always devoted to good works. "I never stopped supporting the efforts of those devoted to world peace, like the Quakers, or SANE, or Greenpeace, or the NAACP. Only now I have more to donate."
The giving includes psychological and philosophical counseling offered in easy-to-take capsule form. The advice was first dispensed in sermonettes over the counter at his church in suburban Seattle. The Rev. Fulghum also wrote a column for the church's mimeographed newsletter, handed out every other Sunday. Some of the reflections enjoyed a modest afterlife, fixed with magnets to refrigerator doors or folded up and carried around in wallets and pocketbooks. But one message made its way over suburban boundaries and vaulted into the national consciousness.
"The piece was full of elusive truths," recalls Fulghum. "Elusive because they had been in plain sight all the time. Everybody had tripped over them in kindergarten -- without realizing that they were words to live by."
Among the sandpile aphorisms:
Put things back where you found them.
Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody.
Wash your hands before you eat.
Take a nap every afternoon.
When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup -- they all die. So do we.