Good intentions and the road to hell

Time and infinity

Time and infinity

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, my grandfather used to say. My father would quote him regularly at the dining room table, probably as were discussing the follies of some “bleeding heart liberal”, another favourite term my parents used. That and  “It’s a sad, sad world, Master Jack,” were common messages to my developing self. My parents weren’t a terribly optimistic bunch.

Over the years the saying about good intentions has stuck with me. It’s meant a lot of different things to me. It’s an admonishment that just because you think you’re a good person, doesn’t mean you are. It’s a warning that one person’s good intention is another person’s evil. It underscores a pessimistic outlook on life that I come by honestly: that even when you try your hardest, it’s never good enough. And even if it’s good enough, it might not be good.

It makes life seem kind of pointless.

Then the other night I was sitting next to my partner, having dinner (lamb shank, bacon, and asparagus fried in coconut butter, mmmm!), and we were discussing what we wanted to do with our lives. I mentioned the quote and how futile my efforts all felt, really. Like even if I picked some higher purpose or claimed some ideology as the one that rang true for me, I couldn’t know if it actually was correct – and I could end up doing more harm than good, like some of those pop stars and actors who go to third world countries thinking they are going to save the planet but tend to focus on the things that make for media gold rather than addressing the underlying systemic problems. My partner, it turned out, had interpreted the saying completely differently from me.

To say “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” doesn’t mean that “good” intentions are not necessarily good, she explained. It means that intentions aren’t enough. You may intend to raise a child, but unless you step up and actually do it, you’re just an irresponsible, unreliable parent. Good intentions aren’t the problem, they are the beginning. But having good intentions needs to lead to good deeds. That’s the only way to achieve real change.

Jeeez, why didn’t I think of that?

Sometimes we get so trapped in ways of seeing that we imagine everyone sees things the same as us. And sometimes the most obvious explanations escape us because the narratives we tell ourselves are so deeply engrained.

The narratives my parents told me were, on the whole, pretty negative growing up. What I was dealing with was a family in colluded depression, unable to see each other’s suffering because we were each convinced that our dark visions were accurate.

It’s true that we can’t actually know the full consequences of our actions. Sometimes, in fact, doing the right thing might actually cause pain and suffering to other people or ourselves. But if one were to choose between attempting to actualize a good intention and doing nothing at all, the choice seems obvious.

Was it Carl Jung who said: “it’s better to be whole than good?”. I think being whole depends on taking the risk of acting on your good intentions. And taking responsibility for the aftermath.

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