It’s an aphorism and we all know it well.
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
I wonder when we first learn this? At a grandparent’s knee? A mother’s retort? It seems I’ve known this little ditty all my life, but that’s only because I don’t remember hearing it for the first time.
It started somewhere though and where it is believed to have started was with Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th c. French abbott. A powerful and political figure in the Church who is best known for his eloquent essays. (And penning “Prayer to the Shoulder Wound of Jesus.” –though some credit that to St. Gertrude, you can never be too sure.) In the Divine Comedy, Saint Bernard appears as a guide for Dante Alighieri, as they reach the Empyrean, the abode of God in Heaven. He is the patron saint of beekeepers and wax-melters and he wrote, in 1150, “Hell is full of good wishes and desires.”
The likes of Soren Kirkegaard, Sir Walter Scott, Samuel Johnson, Madonna (the pop singer, not the Virgin mother), Samuel Beckett, Karl Marx and Samuel Taylor Coleridge have used the phrase in their own works. It is a universal struggle, I think, to have so many things, good things, worthy things, that we wish to turn our attention to, that we intend to accomplish– and yet those fields lay fallow. Should those shortcomings damn us to Perdition?
Because this is what academics do, a team of psychology students from McGill, the University of Rochester and the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth published a study in 2005 to examine whether or not perfectionists have a more difficult time “implementing intention” and achieving “goal progress.” Well, of course they do. It isn’t just because they’re perfectionists, it’s because perfectionists have standards and fail to live up to them every single day. No wonder we have such a hard time getting started.
My good intentions today included finishing a newsletter and getting it mailed. (I finished it.) Filling out an official form and returning it by email. (It’s mostly filled out.) Taking a friend who’s Blazer went up in flames (yes, I know the irony) out to look at cars, which I’d researched for him last night. He had a tight budget and a specific wish list. He bought a car, so I’d consider that the achievement of the day. But throw in a few detours (consoling the man at the print shop, who had to euthanize his elderly collie this week,and a slog around the grocery at 5:30 on a Friday afternoon) and I came home utterly exhausted, fit for nothing.
What then, was I to write? I couldn’t fail to produce something just three days into Lent. Earlier in the morning, I’d heard the curious news story of a woman found dead in Pontiac, Michigan. She was in a mummified state in the back seat of her car, in her garage. Of course, the real question is why didn’t anyone miss her? They are estimating she’d been in the car for six years. The manner in which we interact with each other and the world at large is of endless fascination for me, and tonight I started in reading every account of this situation I could find. And read, and read. And made notes. And a diagram. And an outline. And then I was too tired to write the story. It’s too complex for a sleepy writer to navigate. So that is the story for tomorrow.
I had good intentions. And anyway, I don’t believe in hell.