It is one of the most fascinating, inspiring and thought provoking stories I have ever heard and/or read. If you are Australian you would…or at least should, know his name. For the rest of you all over the world let me introduce you to a very ordinary man… who managed to capture the attention and imagination of millions… in a very extraordinary way!
Before we continue let me say that I am not in any way, shape or form a religious person. I would best be described as an
agnostic… so the purpose of writing this post is not to promote religion in any way. In fact I see quite the opposite…
I see it as the power of an individual to make a difference in a peaceful, dignified and highly effective way.
Quite simply it is “the power of one” in a beautifully pure, most elegant… most powerful form !
It is the human collective being proactive at the most basic…individual level.
[btw :- this is a long and I believe important post… so if you don’t have time to read right now then leave it for later – don’t rush through it, give yourself enough time to read and think for a while]
The story begins during the great depression… in Sydney, Australia. Many of the city’s residents have fallen through the cracks, many are homeless and an even greater number are living in the streets and parks of the city. Arthur Stace was a hopeless alcoholic, drinking metholated spirits and sleeping in the gutters and parks of the seedier parts of Sydney. Since his early teens he had been in and out of jail, joined petty crime gangs, worked in brothels and gambling houses and was essentially a hopeless, raving, perpetually drunken loser in the streets of Surry Hills. During the first world war he had served in France and returned almost blind in one eye. He immediately went back to his habitual drinking binges, but like many street drunks he gradually cascaded from beer and whisky to cheap wine and eventually metholated spirits… the cheapest form of alcohol. His extreme alcoholism had meant that he essentially lived in a permanent drunken stupor.
One day Arthur noticed some well dressed people heading towards a church and he followed them in. Many years later he told reporters that he felt that he wanted to be like them… normal, well dressed and respected by people. He started to attend church regularly and slowly managed to give up drinking. His new determination also landed him a job on the sandmills and he slowly started to get back his self respect. Then… one day he attended Burton Baptist Church at Darlinghurst where he heard the evangelist Reverend John Ridley say “I wish I could shout ETERNITY through the streets of Sydney”. He apparently repeated the word over and over during his sermon. Stace later recalled “he repeated himself and kept shouting ‘ETERNITY, ETERNITY’ and his words were ringing in my ears”.
As he left the church he apparently got an overwhelming urge to write the word ‘ETERNITY’. He found a piece of chalk and bent down and wrote it on the footpath. Many years later he recalled “the funny thing is that before I wrote it I could hardly have spelled my own name. I had no schooling and I couldn’t have spelt “Eternity” for a hundred quid…but it came out smoothly in beautiful copperplate script. I couldn’t understand it and still can’t”.
Arthur Stace begun rising before dawn every morning and before people reached train and bus stations he would go and write that one word “Eternity” in his distinctive copperplate script. He started with chalk but eventually changed to crayons as they lasted longer in the damp winter days of Sydney. He wrote the word every hundred yards or so, over and over… and over. Half a million times it has been estimated. Millions of people around Sydney started to ask who the “ETERNITY” man was and many came forward claiming to be responsible. But Arthur kept quietly writing the word, on footpaths, steps and park walkways. He kept spreading his one-word message to all those who could read it. He was diligent, relentless and passionate in his efforts. He eventually became notorious… although nobody knew who he was or that he was responsible for the one word sermon all over Sydney. He was eventually discovered and when asked by the judge “are you the ETERNITY man?”… he answered “guilty your honour”.
Arthur Stace died in a nursing home in 1967. Since then there have been many debates and heated discussions on “if” and how to best honour the man. At one stage the Sydney Council was going to place permanent plaques with “that word” around the areas he frequented during his many years of writing on the pavements. Eventually he got his memorial in Sydney Square… designed by architect Ridley Smith (who was named after the preacher that converted Stace). The word Stace wrote all over Sydney now stands in the Square in big letters for all to see. But the little man’s message didn’t end there. During the Sydney Olympics it was decided to honour Arthur Stace and his noble, one-word message on the most visible of all Sydney landmarks… the Harbour Bridge. During the conclusion of the spectacular Opening Ceremony fireworks on the bridge (with billions of people watching on TV) there was the little man’s one word message to the world. The passion and power of ONE man… using ONE single word to spread his message !
This story has been floating around in my mind for many years. As an ex newspaper man, an advertising and marketing man and as a voracious reader, I have always believed in the immense power of the written word. I have always believed in the power of the simple and concise message. I have always believed in the “power of one” to make a difference… on any level, on any stage.
Initially I was going to write this story as part of the “find your passion” series on this blog. But something held me back… until earlier this week when I read about Blog Action Day. I read about the efforts to generate awareness for the environment as well as other worthy causes. My mind started to drift to all the articles, news items, documentaries and thousands of debates that have raged over the past ten years or so, relating to saving our planet. I started to think about the wisdom of trying to change people’s habits by scaring them, by throwing volumes of information at them, by having public debates between industry lobby groups and the scientific community… and the worst possible messengers of all, the “politicians”. I thought about the information overload that we all live in, the multitude of media channels that now compete for our collective mind-space. I thought about the complexity of every day life compared to that of 40-50 years ago. I thought about the endless ways that special interest groups try to reach and hold our attention… try to get us to contribute, to be involved, to participate.
I thought about the state of our world today and the volumes that could be written about it’s problems. I thought about Blog Action Day and the potential power of blogs to make a difference. I thought about the need to simplify, simplify, simplify… when it comes to getting an effective message to people around the world. I thought about how we can possibly reduce all the things we need to say, to recommend, to remind, to suggest to people when it comes to our planet (not to mention several other issues). I thought about what we need to do to take this matter off the hands of those who only have self-interest in mind when they talk about the environment. I thought about how we can utilise the unlimited power of one and the infinite power of words to make our statement. A simple statement, made by an individual… any individual, anywhere in the world, without the need for political support or industry lobby group funding. How do we take this terribly convoluted mess we are in and turn it into something we all understand and we can all do something about.
Then… then I thought about Arthur, early on a rainy winter’s morning in Sydney. Walking in the dark until he found his first pavement for the day. Bending down and writing the word he believed would make a difference if read often enough… his one-word message. I thought about the beautiful simplicity and understated elegance of his chosen medium. I thought about how we can apply it to our problems today… our environment/planet in particular. What word do we need to use to spread our message, to awaken people’s consciousness, to make people think twice before they make things worse for all of us, to remind people of their responsibility without confusing them or hitting them over the head with volumes of research and politically motivated propaganda?
That was the question in my mind as I went to sleep last night… and, believe it or not, around 3am this morning I woke up mouthing the word. The new age gurus will say that it was the “universe” answering my call… but I would much rather believe that a little old man whispered something in my ear.
So early this morning I went and wrote this word somewhere where thousands of people would see it. They won’t know what it means…yet!
But they will if we all do it. That’s what’s known as critical mass. The tipping point. The creation of “buzz”… and all through our word of mouth.
What’s the word? The word is simple, it’s humble and it spells out in the most concise way what we need to develop for our small planet:
Now, I know it’s much easier to be cynical about these things… but let me explain my thoughts. If each one of us, the people that read this blog, goes out and writes this word in a place where it can be seen by many, then we are on our way to creating a quiet, but potent movement. A new version of the “power of one” model. This is the ‘internet-empowered’ version, which I call “one… to the power of many“. You can write it on the sand of a beach you love, on the pavement of a park you love to walk in, the steps leading to a fantastic view somewhere in your city, or the pavement of a busy street, a railway station, a city mall. You can write it anywhere and take a photo of it. We can start publishing these photos from around the world and develop an international gallery of “Respect”… on a dedicated blog. I realise you might be thinking that it’s a cute idea but really quite pointless because people will not know what “respect” means if they see it written somewhere… but you would be wrong. Buzz always starts small and picks up momentum. Word of mouth is an invisible tidal wave once it picks up critical mass. “Respect” as a word that represents what we all should feel… is a concept that can travel the world in seconds thanks to the power of the internet and the collective power of blogging.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let us follow Arthur’s lead and do it one small step at a time. Write the word once… and take a photo of it. Then email the photo and spread the word. Surely we can all do that much ;-)
PS: this is a big topic and I would gratefully welcome your input. Send me your thoughts pro or con. Something needs to be done and I just happen to believe that the little old man from Sydney showed us that the passion of even “one”… can go a long way.
PPS: to all those who left kind words and good wishes… thank you. You have humbled me. I am almost back to normal. Face still has some battle scars, but nothing major. The hand still has a few holes that need to heal… but really, it’s nothing. Certainly nothing compared to what it could have been. Maybe little old Arthur Stace wanted me to write his story…. it’s a nice thought ;-)
A number of thoughtful people have taken this post seriously enough to send us “Respect” photos from their part of the world. You can see their poignant photos and simple messages HERE ! I hope you too can follow their example and show the power of one by joining our movement of “Respect”.