There is an aphorism that says: "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."
Now, the general definition of an aphorism is "a short saying expressing a general, often universally acknowledged truth or principle." But this particular aphorism, while known to many people, does not seem to proliferate the universal consciousness in any meaningful way.
Let me explain.
If you have been reading my blog since it began, or even if you are just friends with me on Facebook, you know I have been struggling with some of my coworkers- one male coworker in particular. And you also know that I have been struggling with well-meaning "friends" urging me to "be the bigger person" and "forgive" him, despite never having received an apology from this man. Despite my best efforts, this problem is still aggressively pervading my consciousness, so it was no surprise to me when the problem also invaded my dreams the other night, in a dream which was set, of all places, in the Mickey and Friends Parking Structure.
The basic premise was this: we were having a late-night refresh rehearsal on the top level of the parking garage, which can only be accessed via a super-long escalator. If you've ever been to Mickey and Friends, you know that the escalator is pretty scary-looking in real life, but of course, it is even more terrifying in dream-land. My brain's version of the escalator was more like a fast-moving ladder. So I stepped onto this steep, long, fast-moving electric ladder, ready to make my way to my late night rehearsal on the top level of the Mickey and Friends Parking Structure. But as the escalator/ladder bore me upwards, one of the sides connecting the top of the ladder to the side of the building came loose, and suddenly I was swinging precariously in midair. When the ladder swung toward the other escalator, the one moving downward, I managed to grab on- but then I was struggling against the downward motion, trying to climb upwards. Everyone from above was shouting words I couldn't understand, and in the dream, I knew I wasn't going to be able to make it, that I would soon be thrown off the escalator to certain death. But just as I had this thought, a hand emerged from above, and a voice shouted, "don't worry, I've got you!"
At last! I thought. I am saved! But even as the voice promised help, the hand wrapped itself around my throat and started tugging me upwards. As I struggled for air, I looked up to see the face of the man I've been dealing with at work.
I managed to croak out a plea: "Stop! You're hurting me!" "No," he replied, "I'm saving you!" He pulled me by the throat, squeezing tighter and tighter, until he'd delivered me to the floor of the parking garage, while I gasped for air and fingered the bruises forming on my neck.
"Thank goodness you're ok!" Our other cast members exclaimed.
"Didn't you see him choking me?" I asked.
"Choking you?! He was helping you!" They responded.
"But he almost killed me!"
"Well, he meant well. He had good intentions."
He had good intentions.
They always do, don't they?
I'm sure we have all had people's bad actions explained away by other people claiming, "I'm sure they didn't mean it that way." Of course they never intend to hurt you when they don't invite you to that party, when they talk about how much they hate what you love, when they make a "harmless" joke about gender or race. Paul Hudson writes about this phenomenon in an article for Elite Daily titled "7 Reasons I Don't Give a Damn About Your Intentions, Only Your Actions," and two of his reasons stand out to me as glaringly accurate:
1. You're defined by how you treat people, not by how you justify your treatment of them.
The most important thing you do in life is define “goodness” for yourself. How you define goodness, how you define good and bad, good and evil, right and wrong, defines the person that you are.
And it all starts with how you treat other people — not just the people in your life, but acquaintances and strangers. How much value you give life itself and how you treat living things defines you as an individual..
We all have our reasons for treating others poorly – if only from time to time. While the more heinous of us find ways of justifying rape and murder, the majority of us find reasons to be rude, cold, aggressive, insulting and just plain mean.
Yes, sometimes we do have good reasons for acting less than friendly, but usually those reasons lack valid justification.
5. You're defined by the way you love, not by why you don't know how to love.
This one is a bit hard for even me to accept… but only because I tried justifying my actions in a million different ways. I was young. I was stupid. I didn't understand what I had, what I was part of. I didn't know what I was doing. The truth is, it doesn't matter.
You broke their heart. You hurt them. You damaged them. You changed their reality and changed it for the darker.
You were a negative influence on their life, and you can never go back to undo what you did. C'est la vie.
And the "good intentions" excuse extends beyond the personal and into the social. In Jamie Utt's article "Intention vs. Impact: Why Your Intentions Don't Really Matter" on everydayfeminism.com, she reminds us that "from Paula Deen to Alec Baldwin to your annoying, bigoted uncle or friend, we hear it over and over again: “I never meant any harm…” “It was never my intent…” “I am not a racist…” “I am not a homophobe…” “I’m not a sexist…” " and she continues, "I cannot tell you how often I’ve seen people attempt to deflect criticism about their oppressive language or actions by making the conversation about their intent. At what point does the “intent” conversation stop mattering so that we can step back and look at impact? After all, in the end, what does the intent of our action really matter if our actions have the impact of furthering the marginalization or oppression of those around us?" Utt explains that "making the conversation about intent is inherently a privileged action. The reason? It ensures that you and your identity (and intent) stay at the center of any conversation and action while the impact of your action or words on those around you is marginalized. For people of identity privilege," she says, "this is where listening becomes vitally important, for our privilege can often shield us from understanding the impact of our actions."
So when a different male coworker commented on a thread about a cast beach trip asking all of his female coworkers to "send him plenty of bikini pics" and responded to my suggestion that this comment might have been inappropriate with "I was just kidding! It was just a joke!", his good intentions did not make me feel better or less objectified. When this same coworker walked down the stairs to our basement with the perpetrator from my choking dream, saying, "I dare you to say what you said to Anna on Facebook to our stage manager tomorrow," not knowing I was under those stairs doing yoga and hearing everything he said, and responded to my confrontation with "I didn't mean anything bad about you, I was talking about someone else, I was just using the bad thing that happened to you to say something cruel about someone else," I didn't miraculously feel less pain at having my humiliation brought up once again. I did begin to feel better, however, when this man finally said, "you know what, it doesn't matter what I meant. What matters is I hurt you, and for that I am sorry."
Because it doesn't matter what you meant- it never matters what you meant. What matters is that you hurt someone- and as an adult human who lives in a world where communication with other adult humans is necessary, it is your job to examine what you did and what you said, and how those actions failed to express your intent accurately. If you did not communicate your intention, if someone misread your intention, that is a failure of communication on your part, not on the hurt party's part. Because no one can read your mind. No one has the responsibility to decipher what your intent may have been. It is your responsibility to accurately communicate your intent, and recognize when your carelessness hurts others. We all unintentionally hurt others sometimes, and when this happens, the only thing that matters is that you did, in fact, hurt someone, and for that, all you can do is be sorry, and do better next time.