Good, Good, Good, Good Intentions
I always do a lot of thinking about good intentions in December.
It's not because I'm inspired by the holidays. I'm simply observing the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Each year, around December 10th, I reread that incredible document just to remind myself that as humans, we can all agree on what it means to have basic rights and to be treated fairly. It's an inspiring piece of writing, and it fills my heart with hope--that is, until I remember that we don't seem to be making much progress on the goals we set for ourselves 55 years ago.
From the time we're very young, we learn that there is a difference between what we mean to do and what actually happens. After a scuffle, your mother asked, "Did you do it on purpose or by accident?" It was sometimes okay to kick your brother in the teeth as long as you didn't mean to do it--like, say, if you were reaching a toy for him on the top shelf and stepped back wildly on your way down. You were trying to help, you caused pain accidentally, you felt bad about it, so it was excused.
Now that we're adults, are our accidents excused? Do good intentions serve as a sort of "Get out of jail free" card? Not exactly.
Democritus, the Greek philosopher and physicist, said: "My enemy is not the man who wrongs me, but the man who means to wrong me." Tell that to the mother of a child killed by a drunk driver. Bad things happen, even when they are completely unintentional and repulsive to the perpetrators. Negligent homicide isn't intentional, but the results are the same as if the guilty party carefully planned and carried out his attack.
If we watch the news, we see all kinds of examples of good intentions that go terribly wrong. Whether we're talking about the results of a new Walmart or a new war, we can't always get what we want, but if we try real hard, we just might find--we screw things up royally. (apologies to the Rolling Stones)
The latest brain research tells us that it's possible to make things happen by simply having a clear intention. As long as we look in the mirror every day and repeat, "I will become a millionaire and benefactress, feeding the poor with my great wealth", then eventually we'll be writing those fat checks to the local food bank.
Unfortunately, those mirror musings don't always focus on the good intentions behind the goal. Given the option of manifesting our destiny, we tend to go with our top choice. The millionaire thing wins out--we can't open door number two (becoming a benefactress) without opening door number one first. Consequently, we end up with a whole lot of people repeating the millionaire mantra every day, and the real intention--giving generously--gets lost in the shuffle.
The same thing happens on a much larger scale all around the world. Rich countries want to help poor countries. They need to raise money in order to give it away. In order to raise that money, they need to show results from previous efforts. To get positive results, they have to come up with programs that sound feasible and promise outstanding outcomes. They must jump through the appropriate hoops. Any grant writer can tell you that there is an art to getting money, and it has very little to do with good intentions.
We need guidelines even when we have the best of intentions, but sometimes we get so caught up in following our plan that we fail to do the right thing. A recent news story told of a local organization that missed out on over $700,000 in funding it receives from a particular agency each year. Why? The grant application was submitted using margins that were four letters too wide. The agency expressed regret that they would be unable to support this worthy but unfortunate group this year, but stood by its strict rules as a means of filtering out those who are not able to follow instructions to the letter.
We use good intentions as a cloak on far too many occasions. There are times when it's necessary to recognize that where we're headed wasn't anywhere on our map when we started the journey. Just because we mean well doesn't mean it's okay to keep going in the wrong direction.
It's fine to figure out what you want, and it's okay to ask for it. There's certainly no reason why we shouldn't think of ways to improve ourselves and our world and set out to achieve our goals.
But it's not okay to pursue an activity once we realize that the original intention--the reason for beginning in the first place--has been lost in the flurry of activity required to pursue it. If you kick your brother in the teeth while stealing his toy, you're going to get in trouble, and Mom will show no mercy.
We know what we want for all humans on the planet. It's right there in writing, in that document which has been translated into over 300 languages. We're not even close to achieving all that we want, or all that we can. We created a beautiful promise in that proclamation, but we've become too distracted to make it our priority.
If Mom were taking care of this, she'd sit us down and make us read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights until we knew its salient features by heart. We'd emerge from our bedroom contrite and committed to being a better citizen. We'd do our best to please her and to make things right, not because we feared her wrath but because we knew she was lovingly teaching us what it means to be excellent.
O Mother, where art thou?
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