The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples

Paving the Nether Regions

All my life I have been assured by one person or another that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I never actually believed it, since I didn't believe in hell and figured that a loving God - if such existed - would cut people a little slack anyway, but when I was looking in my Bartlett's Familiar Quotations the other day, I thought I'd look it up and find out where the idea came from. Well, it's ancient, all right. In 1600 something, St. Francis de Sales attributed one of the St. Bernards who lived in the first century of the second millennium with saying that Hell was full of good intentions and good wishes; and a book of English quotations in the same century said that good intentions were what Hell was paved with without attributing it to anyone in particular; and then Dr. Samuel Johnson was quoted by Boswell as having said the same thing. Well, with all those respectable people saying it over and over again - not to mention my mother - I thought it might be well that I should rethink my position.

So I did. One of my first thoughts was that I preferred the version I had first heard - that it was the road to hell, rather than hell itself for which good intentions were the basic paving material. After all, one can always turn back on a road. It may be a slippery slope, but you still have the option to repent and turn around before you actually reach the goal. We all have so many good intentions that are not, for whatever reason, fulfilled, that I don't think many of us would escape damnation under those conditions.

Of course, as you are aware, I am a Universalist, and I don't believe in damnation at all. Nevertheless, it is understandable that such a saying could gain currency, and for that matter, keep it. I can easily see how saints, eager to save souls, would find it highly irritating to have to deal with people who profess and intend agreement and then go back to their ordinary unsaintly ways. It is just as easy for mothers, having begged for days, when their children say, "Well, I mean to clean up my room after I come back from playing ball," to give the same response. The meaning of the saying of course has nothing to do with anyone's literal description of the devil's favorite paving material. It simply says that to mean well is not enough. We must also do well.

There are two different ways in which to have good intentions is insufficient. The first is to fail to fulfill our promises either to others or to ourselves. Ralph Potter, a famous ethicist at Harvard, argues that the basis of society is promise-keeping, that without that simple commitment, people cannot live together. It is the foundation of trust, some level of which is required for any social intercourse at all. Without it we would have to be living as hermits, as we would expect anyone we meet to do us damage. I think that he is probably correct as to the importance of that value, and to keep our own promises and expect others to keep theirs is the basis of civilization. However, none of us is perfect, and there are very few of us who have never broken a promise, and fewer still who have followed through on every single good intention that we have had. And, I must admit, I'd rather deal with unfulfilled good intentions, however hurt I may be by them than fulfilled bad ones. It is more pleasant to think that people mean well and simply have been unable, because of the weaknesses to which the flesh is heir, to follow through, than that their intentions were dishonorable from the beginning. That has, in fact, been my usual experience with people. Of course, that can cause a great deal of damage, but if the intentions really were good and were really existent, I think it is possible to forgive the sinner after proper penance and atonement. To both mean and do ill seems to me far worse, and I think is much more likely to pave hell or the road to it.

However, when I think of the damage such unfulfilled good intentions can do, I remember a sad little incident from my childhood. It was one Halloween when my costume was to be Little Bo-Peep. The dress and hat were perfect, I had a couple of stuffed lambs, and all I needed to be sure to win the prize for best costume at school was to have a shepherd's crook. My father said that he would provide one. He came home very late that evening having lost track of the time (a thing he frequently did) - far too late even for the end of the Halloween Carnival, much more for the costume judging. Nevertheless, he brought the shepherd's crook. It was beautiful. The crook was a graceful curve, the bow, the exact shade of my dress, was perfectly tied. He had spent a long time making it that way, though that was not what had kept him, but it was far too late to be of much use to me. As you can imagine, at the age of ten, my heart was quite broken. Nevertheless, even then I knew that the proof of his original good intentions that showed in the time and effort he put on that crook, was something to be glad of.

The other way for good intentions to have negative consequences is to mean to do well, to follow through on it, and to be wrong, or at least to be acting inappropriately. In that case, no matter how excellent your motivation may be, sometimes you can do at least as much damage as if your intentions were selfish, or you hadn't finished what you started. Sometimes more.

One of the basic differences between the various Christian sects that believe in hell is the different notions of how populous it will be. Of course, there are certain fundamentalists who will assure you that according to Revelation only 144,000 people will be saved, and all others will be consigned to the pit. They are right that Revelation says that. It also implies that those 144,000 will be young Jewish men, but the religions which preach that will explain how the covenant came to be changed. Those are the extremists. There are others who come door to door, however, who spend a great deal of time trying to convince you that neither ignorance nor good intentions will save you from hell if you don't accept their preaching. When I argue with them, which I am sometimes in the mood to do, I tell them that whatever they say, I cannot believe that God could be so arbitrary.

Most modern main-line Christian denominations have tended to agree with me, and their hells are much less overpopulated, if they believe in it at all. At the least they will not consign those born before the new covenant to eternal torment, and will often exempt most people living in non-Christian societies who have not been exposed to Christian doctrine. Some will even agree that God would not consign well-meaning non-believers to eternal punishment simply because they were unable to believe in the accepted theological point of view. However, it's a difficult point of doctrine for all of them, and a continuing struggle.

Luckily, we don't have to deal with it. But I think we may have to deal with the question of good intentions gone wrong. At a minister's retreat once, one of my more thoughtful colleagues Matthew MacNaught, read a paper that I thought was extremely interesting. In it he suggested that there are times in our lives when not only have our weaknesses gotten us in trouble, but that even our strengths may dig us deeper into the pit. That there may come a time for some of us when none of our efforts, none of our struggles, will get us out of whatever hole we are in. Rather, the things we do that have always been most successful in times of trial, our very best coping mechanisms, our highest virtues, will actually make matters much worse. There are times, he said, when the best of intentions and the best of follow-through lead to the worst possible results.

I knew a man who was mentally ill. His wife was loving, caring, patient, understanding, supportive, all the things spouses of the ill should be. He became worse and worse. Finally matters deteriorated to the point where a divorce was necessary. He began to get a little better. Then he married a woman who was demanding, controlling and manipulative. It was the best thing that ever happened to him. His health improved out of all recognition, and there was no question that those separate relationships made much of the difference. Of course, that was not all that was involved in either of them, but they were major factors. His first wife's particular virtues were very bad for him, and in that situation for her, too. His second wife's primary faults were his salvation. Good intentions, good follow-through, terrible results. Well, sometimes life is so complex that no matter how hard you intend and try to do the right thing, it turns out wrong, and the only way to discover that it was wrong is by looking at the outcome. Although in the first wife's case it might be said that hell was indeed built at least partly with her good intentions, I think to consider her blameworthy would clearly be unfair.

However, there are other incidents of good intentions with bad results that I think are the consequence of what I will call culpable naivete. We forgive children for tactlessness and blunders and clumsiness because of their inexperience. As people get older we excuse less of their clumsy behavior, because we feel that they should have learned better. There are those who, with no intention of doing harm, with indeed only the best intentions, cause damage through ignorance. Should they not be held responsible because their intentions were honorable? It's like the March Hare in Alice in Wonderland who ruined a watch by greasing it with butter. When the Mad Hatter said, "I told you butter wouldn't suit the works," his only response was, "It was the very best butter." When we, through ignorance, find our best intentions backfiring, is it the devil's asphalt indeed, or can we excuse ourselves by murmuring, "It was the best butter."

I suspect there comes a time when it is not ignorance but carelessness. A Buddhist concept, which I have occasionally mentioned, is that of mindfulness. I haven't seen anything in western religion or philosophy that quite means the same thing. It means paying close attention to everything that we are doing. Failure to do that leads to harm. I doubt that any of us are able to pay complete attention to everything. There are too many things going on at once. Nevertheless, it's a good idea, and a good one to try to practice. One result of mindfulness would be a tendency to perceive the likely consequences of any action that you take, and could be an antidote to culpable naivete. To continue to be a well-meaning bull in china shop after you have reached the stage of abstract reasoning is not acceptable.

In spite of people like this, one of the reasons I am so adamant in my belief that this old saying cannot be accurate is that if hell is paved with good intentions, what happens to the people with bad ones? If hell is filled with well-meaning but imperfect people, where in the world - or rather out of it - will they put the ones who don't mean well at all? I think there are some of those around, although I sincerely believe that they are few, and I would far rather associate with those who mean well than those who don't.

So, after the investigation I still don't believe that hell, or the road to it, is paved with good intentions. The exception to that could be the hells that we build for ourselves when the consequences of our good intentions or their lack of follow-through are evil. Unluckily, though that might seem fair on the face of it, since we're reaping the results of our own actions, it really isn't, because sometimes we populate the hells that we build with our friends and families rather than being able to live in them by ourselves. That, by the way, is my objection to the attractive theological notion that we make our own heaven and hell on earth. So even if we really believe that only the result should be taken into account rather than the intention, the consequences of reward or punishment can never be entirely fair.

That makes it easier for me to come down on the side of thinking that intention should count for something, no matter what the result may be, except in cases of culpable naivete. It won't make any difference in the consequences of the fulfillment, or lack thereof, of the intention, but we can feel better about ourselves or better about others if we weigh intention in the balance of our judgment.

To mean well is certainly not the same as to do well. We all know that. Not to live up to our expectations of ourselves is one of the most common of human experiences, an integral part of the human condition. It is what I am talking about when I say that I believe in original sin. No matter how sincerely well-intentioned we are, we can never unfailingly live up to those intentions. We are not and cannot be perfect, although one of the most significant human paradoxes is that that awareness doesn't allow us to relax from the effort to be as nearly perfect as we can. However, we are mostly forgivable, and part of the forgiveness we can offer both to ourselves and others will be based on the awareness of good intentions.