I’ve recently been thinking about the phrase, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” At first reading, I see it as an admonishment that intentions are only as good as the actions that follow. Upon deeper inspection, that interpretation seems a little nonsensical. It’s a little like saying, “the road to the garbage dump is paved with concrete.” Yeah, so is the road to Homewoods, and the grocery store, and the airport, etc. It doesn’t really make sense to evaluate the merit of concrete based on the destination it takes me to. By the same token, I’m certain that good intentions also pave the road to heaven, as well as a number of other places.
Modern psychology and neuroscience have proven time and again that we human beings tend to act first, then think about motives and intentions afterwards as a means of explaining ourselves. If good intentions alone can lead anywhere, and we’re not in control of the outcomes of all our actions, then what determines the path we’re on? The answer has to be grace. The French proverb, “To know all is to forgive all,” is something I have held on to for much of my adult life. It’s not really necessary or possible to know all, but I can accept that if I knew why someone spoke or acted the way they do, then I would choose to forgive.
Our consumer-driven Christmas traditions seem to have warped into a strange juxtaposition of self-interest with moralizing about being, “naughty or nice”. We are primed to think that people are only as good as we interpret their actions. The original message of Christmas is much simpler: Everybody deserves grace! The holidays have a knack for spontaneously stirring up potent feelings, recent and ancient alike, and they’re not always jolly. This year, instead of getting tied up into worrying about whether someone is being naughty or nice, I would like to admonish us to remember that no one of us is actually nice enough to be on the nice list all the time, let alone decide who else should be on the nice list. We are all doing our best with what life has brought us, and for our shortcomings, there is grace.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!