The Road To Hell Is Paved With Good Intentions
I’d like to say that this old saw is unfamiliar to me, but I’ve heard it many, many times and usually when the defense of my inaction has fallen short again. It’s an old phrase, occasionally attributed to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, first appearing as “L’enfer est plein de bonnes volontés ou désirs” — which translates as, “Hell is full of good wishes or desires.” Pretty much the same idea, and I’ll give a tip of the cowl to Saint Bernard, although he lived, worked, and spoke in the 12th Century, at which point I’m guessing his French didn’t look much like the sleek sentence above and his recorded utterances were much more likely to be delivered in Latin.
C’est comme ca que ca va- “That’s the way it goes.”
I think we have to admit that the idea has been with us ever since the first human meant to do something, forgot or weasled out, and then tried to explain away an unfortunate outcome by arguing that his intentions were solid gold. Folk wisdom reminds us that, roads go unpaved, gardens go untended, friendships fall away, apologies are never delivered, but rarely points out the harm done to the self in failing to follow through on the actions we intend to carry out. Not only do we travel rough roads, miss out on mid-summer tomatoes, lose friendships that might have sustained us, we chip away at our integrity just a bit with each intention left undone.
By integrity I mean the congruence of who we are and what we do. That turns out to be more important than we might think because, in the end or along the way, we are what we do. Our character is defined by our actions.
I may not be alone in wishing that I might be judged by my intentions but judge those around me by their actions. Apparently it doesn’t work that way. One size fits all.
All of that said, things don’t always work out, no matter how genuinely our intentions and actions are expressed. Christmas gifts don’t fit, we’re jostled and spill a drink on the bride while making a toast, the weather turns cataclysmic, the hotel loses a reservation. Stuff happens. I guess I’m coming to the conclusion that character is about intention in action but not necessarily about outcome. Apologies may not be accepted. A phone call to an old friend may not lead to reunion. The blinking tomatoes may explode on the vine again this year.
Robert Southey, 19th Century Poet Laureate wrote an exceedingly odd essay presenting exchanges between himself and the ghost of Sir Thomas More, Colloquies on Society, in which he observed, “ It has been more wittily than charitably said that hell is paved with good intentions; they have their place in heaven also.”
I like to believe that some intentions have a long shelf life, and, treating myself with some charity, I can still pull them out and follow through. So, please excuse me. I have some phone calls to make.