The difference between good intentions and good actions = understanding, humility, and empathy


There are many saying about how many “evil actions” have been the result of good intentions. So how are we to know if our actions are good? Are there actions which are indisputably wrong and indisputably right? Instead of going into a heady philosophical investigation as to why good and bad are infinitely one, inseparable, and transient constructs of the collective… let us move forward with some thoughts on how to ensure that your good intentions can do better at manifesting  good actions.

To clarify the point of this post let me fill you in on what I am talking about in relation to intentions. In my experience as a therapist I have never met a bad or evil person… though I have met many people who have engaged in bad behavior (physically, socially or emotionally destructive actions). Often the good intention behind bad behavior stems from a person’s drive to heal their own suffering… healing suffering is the good intention… creating suffering for others is a very common resulting action.

The people who decide that wars should be fought generally have “good intentions”… they want more of a positive resource, justice, felt security etc…  In every war these intentions always lead to inhumane actions which tend to inflict the most suffering on women and children.

People have always held the good intention of spreading the lessons from their religions which have been spiritually helpful to them… this is a wonderful and positive intention. Yet throughout history genocide, war, slavery etc. have been the result of these good intentions which utilized hurtful behaviors.

What was missing in all these “good intentions”?

We must let our action be guided by understanding, compassion, and empathy… and we will need the humility to do so.

If we have a good intention to help a person we must first understand how that person would feel as a result of our “help”. Without this understanding it is quite possible that we would not be helping at all.

People have often described empathy as “putting yourself in another person’s shoes”… this is quite helpful for the statement’s simplicity, and the point mostly gets across that we should think of how another would react to our actions.

The problem with this definition of empathy as it related to intentions concern the ego…

Our egos are our opinions, sense of permanent self, beliefs, thoughts, personalities etc… If I asked who you are, your answer would be terms which would be describing your ego.

If you put your ‘ego’ into another person’s shoes then you will be sensing how you would feel in their situation as opposed to what they would feel in their situation.

I know that this is semantically confusing…

This is where humility becomes a key ingredient in deducing whether or not an action is good. We must be humble enough to acknowledge that we do not definitively know what good is without gathering information from the moment.

By simply engaging a situation with pure acceptance… an acceptance which is absent of the judgments, beliefs, opinions etc. of your ego… you can offer true empathy… you can know how they feel as they are as opposed to simply knowing how you would feel if you were them.

Is assessing ‘good’ and ‘bad’ it is useful to utilize your feelings… does the action feel right?

Ration can be a very helpful way of trying to understand the world… and it is not always the best tool for deciphering right and wrong… many of the most horrific actions that have been engaged in by humans have been justified with ‘sound’ logic.

The point is that you cannot truly help another person without first understanding them… and to know if they are going to receive your actions as ‘good’ or helpful necessitates that you offer that person genuine empathy.

To truly know another person we must first know ourselves… understanding and accepting our authentic self is a necessary step on the path towards becoming empathetic.

Balancing your pride with humility is another step.

To be ‘good’ requires us to be open and engaged with the moment as opposed to being solely engaged with our principles and beliefs.

This is exceedingly difficult to do in reality and perhaps should be a lifelong goal… if your goal is to find true peace through acceptance.

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.
William Hambleton Bishop
William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

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