Jan. 7, 2018.
by Rev. David A. Miller.
When I first came to Unitarian Universalism, I heard the phrase “assume good intentions.” Assuming good intentions was something that I hadn’t thought much about through my life. I guess I went through the early part of life having grown up in the political shadow of Chicago, and having been around as a youngster in the ‘60s and ‘70s, I didn’t always assume good intentions. You know, “don’t trust anyone over 30,” they used to say. So I didn’t always assume good intentions, but I have always hoped for the best.
At this stage of my life, I do try to assume good intentions. I have seen and included that in many covenants through the years. Covenants made in groups, congregational covenants and various agreements between people. I think the meaning of assuming good intentions is that we shouldn’t immediately assume that people are angling for something, or they are trying to manipulate us, or that they have some sort of hidden agenda. Assuming good intentions is living with the belief that people are inherently good and although we are promise makers and promise breakers, we are also a promise-renewing people.
This was all well and good until I also, through being a Unitarian Universalist, learned from doing anti-racism, anti-oppression and multicultural work that we can walk around with the best of intentions, but if we are not mindful, aware and take responsibility for the impact of our actions, words or behavior, we can have the best intentions in the world, but having good intentions doesn’t really make the grade.
We heard an example about the Frisbee just now, and let me give you another example. It is a wonderful intention to be curious about someone who is different from us. It is wonderful to learn new things. It is good to be observant and aware.
I am not self-conscious about being bald. I lost my hair a long time ago and I love the feel of a fresh-shaved head. So coming up to me and saying “you know, you actually look good without hair,” – I totally understand saying that is supposed to be a complement. I know that would be the intention and because I am fine with being bald, that phrasing probably wouldn’t be problematic. But what if I struggled incredibly with my hair loss, or if my hair loss was from an illness and was upsetting to me? That comment could have the best of intentions, but the impact of that comment could send me spinning. Of course this is incredibly circumstantial and dependent on many individual factors. This example is meant to demonstrate the difference between ones intention, and the potential that intention doesn’t always equal impact.
Returning to the reading “Intent vs. Impact: Why Your Intentions Don’t Really Matter” by Jamie Utt, “From Paula Deen to Alec Baldwin to your annoying, bigoted uncle or friend, we hear it over and over again: ‘I never meant any harm …’ ‘It was never my intent …’ ‘I am not a racist …’ ‘I am not a homophobe …’ ‘I’m not a sexist …’ I cannot tell you how often I’ve seen people attempt to deflect criticism about their oppressive language or actions by making the conversation about their intent. At what point does the “intent” conversation stop mattering so that we can step back and look at impact? In the end, what does the intent of our actions really matter if our actions have the impact of furthering the marginalization or oppression of those around us? In some ways, this is a simple lesson of relationships. If I say something that hurts my partner, it doesn’t much matter whether I intended the statement to mean something else – because my partner is hurting. I need to listen to how my language hurt my partner. I need to apologize. And then I need to reflect and empathize to the best of my ability so I don’t do it again. But when we’re dealing with the ways in which our identities intersect with those around us – and, in turn, the ways our privileges and our experiences of marginalization and oppression intersect – this lesson becomes something much larger and more profound. This becomes a lesson of justice.
What we need to realize is that when it comes to people’s lives and identities, the impact of our actions can be profound and wide-reaching. And that’s far more important than the question of our intent. We need to ask ourselves what might be or might have been the impact of our actions or words. And we need to step back and listen when we are being told that the impact of our actions is out of step with our intent or our perceptions of self.
I bet if I asked all of you to recount time with your families this holiday season, a certain percentage would be able to express to me some cringe-worthy moments around this subject. I have to tell you, I have seen intent turn into some cringe-worthy moments in UU congregations on more than one occasion. Efforts that without question were meant to be from a good place but whose impact landed with a thud.
One example is an often-told tale. At some of our congregations that skew to the more seasoned side of the age range, a young adult walks in with children and almost gets jumped on and held down with welcome. I have personally seen someone so happy there was a family of color coming to visit, she turned with a great big grin and with a joyous tone yelled, “IS THAT A BLACK FAMILY!?” I am pretty sure that family never returned.
A big part of all of this is us not thinking the world through our framework is the only way the world exists. I wonder how many of us look at people all the time and fill in the story based on how they are dressed, what car they are driving, how they speak, where they are from, the color of their skin and many other factors. I know it happens because I do it all the time. I think in many ways it is built in. We have our frameworks and no matter our intentions or the intentions of others, impact doesn’t always hit the way we mean from our perspective.
I want to invite you into a little experiment. Pair off with someone sitting near you and let’s try something. Think of a situation. It could be frustrating, funny or sad. It could make you angry, happy or despondent. After you think of the situation, try and use your face to reflect how you are feeling. I invite the other person in this pair to observe and use that visual clue to describe the emotion and the story that you think it is telling. Then switch to the other partner and do the same thing.
New Year’s resolutions are intentions. For the past several years, I have started my new year trying to stay off of most sugar until my birthday in June. I have set an intention of eating better and of feeling healthier. There are all kinds of resolutions that people make with the best of intentions. We resolve to:
- Work to get out the vote.
- Be more positive
- Read more
- Watch less TV
- Do more hiking
We make these resolutions with the best of intents, not always thinking about how much change management it would take. Going to the gym is an enormous change of lifestyle if you aren’t already going. You have to find the time, you have to think about travel time, you have to decide whether to go before work, after work, early in the morning, late at night. This is true with eating less sugar, because when your diet during the holidays is pretty much anything coated in chocolate, it takes some effort to buy, prepare and eat healthier things.
We don’t often take into account all the many things that may be impacted based on changed intentions. That is part of the point: Our intentions, whether to eat healthier, be kinder people, or be more accepting of others, be welcoming to people no matter where they are from and no matter who they love, it all takes work that inevitably will lead to some changes that will inevitably impact ourselves and others.
And I have to say, that understanding how our intentions impact others is an important theme for 2018. In a world so much in conflict, in a faith tradition trying to learn, grow, change and provide a space of healing and love, it is impossible for us to be perfect and necessary for us to be more aware of the impact of our stories, actions and intentions.
Jamie Utt, the author of our reading says it this way: Listen. Reflect. Apologize. Do Better. It doesn’t matter whether we, deep down, believe ourselves to be __________-ist or whether we intended our actions to be hurtful or _________-ist. It. Doesn’t. Matter. If the impact of our actions is the furthering of oppression, then that’s all that matters. So we need to listen, reflect, apologize and work to do better in the future. What does that look like? Well, to start, we can actually apologize. I don’t know about you, but I am sick of hearing the “I am sorry your face got in the way of my Frisbee! I never intended to hit you” apologies. Whether it’s Paula Deen weeping on TV or Alec Baldwin asking us to simply trust that he’s not a “homophobe,” those are not apologies. That’s why I was incredibly inspired and relieved to see a major organization do it well when Kickstarter apologized and took full responsibility for their role in funding a creepy, “rapey,” seduction guide. They apologized earnestly and accepted the role they played in something really terrible. They pledged to never allow projects like this one to be funded in the future. And then they donated $25,000 to the RAINN national sexual assault hotline. At the interpersonal level, we can take a cue from Kickstarter. When we are told that the impact of our action, inaction or words is hurtful and furthers oppression, we can start by apologizing without any caveats. From there, we can spend the time to reflect in hopes of gaining at least some understanding (however marginal) of the harmful impact. And we can do our best to move forward by acting more accountably.
It is possible that there is no way we can know how our every action, no matter what the intention, will impact others. Which leads me to think, maybe one of our most important resolutions for this year is to be more open to not knowing, to listening, to reflecting, to not having to be right, something I talk about with myself and all of us at least once a year, and to exchanging defensiveness for humility and openness to what may come. If New Year’s resolutions were easy, we wouldn’t have to make them each year. Remember, we are a promise-making and promise-breaking and a promise-renewing people and all we can do is to promise to do our best and to Listen. Reflect. Apologize. And Do Better.
May this be so and Amen.