Living in this World

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Good intentions

At an unfamiliar church service recently, while not feeling at home with the rituals or theology, I found myself noticing all the ways it encouraged good intentions. The words of the prayers and hymns directed us toward lives of committed love and service, the sermon invited us to open and rededicate ourselves. Even the architecture and stained glass called us to connection with centuries of gatherings of the faithful. I was glad to be called in this direction--and wondered, as I have often before, how well such intention gets translated into action.

I was reminded of a new sister-in-law who has been explicit about valuing intention. I had agreed to do something important with her once, then wasn’t sure I could stay awake. She encouraged me to sleep, saying that she still felt joined and supported by my intention. I found this comforting, but also puzzling. Can an intention be equal to an action?

I’ve certainly known people who seem to feel that way. They will proudly announce a virtuous plan of action, and I can tell how virtuous they feel in the telling of it. I also know, from being around them afterwards, how, with the plan having assumed a reality of its own, the actual doing of the deed often gets lost along the way. I try not to judge. They may be better off than those whose struggle with follow-through (as in so many New Year’s resolutions) so demoralizes them that they stop trying, and give up on intention altogether.

I certainly struggle. I buy a book that I hope will help with an intention I have, and it lies at my bedside, unread. Or I succeed with an intention, putting a penny in the sharing jar on the bathroom windowsill every time I flush, to remind myself of the gift of running water--till I discover with dismay that the penny is going into the jar without a thought, and my an intention toward thankfulness is becoming just a habit.

Yet without intention, we have nothing. We drift. We react. We take the path of least resistance or greatest comfort. We are led by those whose intention for us is more compelling--for better or for worse. Our best intentions are an indication of our best selves, a trusted source to which we can return again and again. We can take them seriously, and welcome anything that nudges us in their direction. When we fail or forget, we can pass up the seductive invitation to immobilizing guilt--and act.

I intend to back my sister-in-law; if I slept through one opportunity, I will find another. I intend, some day, somehow, to remember what I want in my mind as I go through my day; I can choose to pick up that book--or just see it there--with fresh hope rather than self-abuse. I still want to be thankful, and the penny jar was a good idea; maybe I can find a way to see it with fresh eyes (and just writing this has helped). I can take those Sunday morning messages of faithfulness and committed service and, rather than indulge in cynical speculation about how often their impact lasts beyond Sunday afternoon, open myself to the nudge and be ready to try again.


Winter’s end
a tree stands lone and bare
arms outstretched
aglow in slanting sunlight
ready to receive
new life.

Some things that have made me hopeful recently:
--The Philadelphia Water Department that is thinking pro-actively and creatively about water conservation and greening.
--The Happy Earthworm Ecological Center in a poor neighborhood in Lima, Peru, where a community initiative collects garbage, sorts, recycles and composts, wards off cholera, and pays the wages of two workers from its profits.
--The attention to instant run-off voting, which allows each voter to rank their preferences, that came from using this voting method at the Oscars.
--A little-noted provision in the health-care bill that takes the student loan business away from for-profit banks.