The Moral of the Mother’s Day Founder’s Tragic Story

How the Mother’s Day founder went completely insane over what others did with her idea.

For most of my life, I had cynically assumed that Mother’s Day was created by some cartel–a Mother’s Day Industrial Complex–comprised of florists, candy makers, buffet restaurants and Hallmark Cards, Inc. Then I learned the tragic story of Anna Jarvis, the woman who led the successful crusade to establish a holiday to honor mothers.

In a tale seemingly ripped from the pages of greek mythology (as recounted in a tabloid account in the New York Post), Ms. Jarvis spent years lobbying for the establishment of a national day to honor Mothers. She was successful and in 1914, Woodrow Wilson signed the proclamation creating Mother’s Day.

But, in the mythological tradition of Pandora when she opened her box, Eve when she bit into the apple and Al Gore when he invented the internet, she discovered that all her good intentions had been hijacked by commercial interests (i.e., the Mother’s Day Industrial Complex).

The rest of the story can be summed up with the Post’s headline: “How Mother’s Day founder went completely insane defending it.” Ms. Jarvis never married and never had children. She never was honored as a mother on Mother’s Day. After she recognized that Mother’s Day was run by Hallmark & Friends, she fought against the commercialization of Mother’s Day until the day she was admitted to a psychiatric ward. Says the Post, “She had been arrested, thrown out of meetings, and became the enemy of numerous charities who previously had supported her cause. She died alone in the Marshall Square Sanitarium on November 24, 1948.” (Unbeknownst to Ms. Jarvis, and with great irony, some of her psychiatric treatment was paid for by anonymous florists.)

I think there are any number of lessons found in the story of Ms. Jarvis. As I am personally fond of honoring Mothers in any way possible and actively encourage the commercialization of any holiday, I’ll let others embrace the “no good deed goes unpunished” lessons found in her story.

Rather, I’ll focus on the need for people to do good deeds knowing that their intentions will be mis-interpreted, and their ideas will be hijacked for purposes they never imagined, nor would ever condone.

I am old enough to have participated in the creation of business ideas that were thought to be contemptible dregs by traditional powers-that-be, but that today are embraced by those same powerful who encourage the world to believe they originated the ideas. I know people whose little sparks of ideas have been used by others who turned them into red-hot forces of good…and equally red-hot forces of evil. I know those whose intellectual contributions to the world have been used for purposes of healing and hurt. I have seen billions of dollars of value accrue to those who have used, without even an acknowledgement of or thanks to  the people who created it,  technology and concepts that serve as the foundation on which they built their billion dollar empires. I have seen where an individual, with no money, has contributed some insight that has positively changed the lives of hundreds of people in their community.

What I choose to learn from Ms. Jarvis is a cautionary tale: Don’t be like Ms. Jarvis. Don’t be under the false belief that once you unleash an idea into the world, that you still own it. Ideas are just that, ideas.

While there are occasions where you should fight over a clear violation of, or robbery of, something you actually own (and I’m not referring to your ability to convince a clueless patent office to issue you a patent for oxygen), it is rare that we will find a positive outcome in trying to correct those who have, in our opinions, built something we don’t like upon a foundation we helped to create.

Happy Mother’s Day, Ms. Jarvis. May you rest in the peace you missed in life.

(Illustration based on photo via WikiMedia Commons)