I was taught that it is a fearful thing to judge another’s motives. Only God knows the heart.
And yet I have watched the very people who taught me this basic principal abandon it at increasingly disturbing rates.
People I love insist President Obama wants to destroy America. Not just that they believe that his policies are destructive, but that he wants to destroy our country.
And people I love believe that those who voted for Trump are bigoted, misogynistic racists. Beyond the few that are indeed proudly and outspokenly just that, I believe most found some reason that, while not directly misogynistic, and racist, justified voting for someone who expressed those sentiments. Some believe he didn’t really mean those things. Is that a risk? Yes, but their willingness to take that risk is not necessary motivated by bigotry.
There is a difference between intentions and actions, and it’s a difference that I’ve seen sincere people struggle with again and again.
I usually see it most clearly when I venture into a mediating role. I once told a friend that their interaction with another friend over a difficult issue had left the second friend feeling like the health of their marriage had been questioned. The first friend responded by accusing me of lying. In that moment they couldn’t consolidate their intentions with the actual results of the actions, and it was the veracity of the result that must be in question.
I see this same pattern play out continuously on all sides of social issues.
So many of us intend only to live our lives in peace, with freedom to pursue our business and interests. It can feel like an attack on our goodwill and personal integrity when someone calls out a consequence of our actions that hurts others.
So many of us, while trying to expose injustices we see or experience, miss things. We want to address problems, and it can be hard to hear how our best intentions can misfire.
The thing we thought was safe instead draws blood.
Whether on a personal level or societal, intentions just don’t always equate with outcomes. As important as it is to acknowledge the intentions of others and examine our own, it’s even more critical that we be open to identifying and owning unintended consequences.
That requires empathy. It requires the compassion to hear and really listen to people who are different than us, who experience the world in ways we can’t conceive of.
It requires the willingness to adjust and change for others’ sake – to let go of things we may cherish for the sake of those we may not understand.
Love is intention wedded to action. Always both together. It’s all too easy to judge ourselves by our intentions and others by the results of their acts.
If we really want a more loving, just, and generous life and world, perhaps we should switch that.