In the 1940’s a couple of literary theorists coined the term “intentional fallacy” that has to do with misunderstanding the writer’s intent in a poem or story. Many approaches to literary criticism would propose that attempting to know what a writer intended to communicate in a poem or story is undesirable, since that sort of analysis tends to limit the total understanding of a work to one specific interpretation. To understand the writer’s intent is also unknowable, even if the writer is still alive, because not even the writer her/himself fully understands his or her own intent. What’s true for the writer’s intent is also true of our own. At the conscious level we believe that we know what we’re trying to accomplish or communicate, but that conscious intent is being strongly influenced, colored and steered by darker, more selfish motivations in the unconscious. The term “unconscious mind” was coined 18th century German philosopher Friedrich Schelling and later proposed in English by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Sigmund Freud later expanded the understanding of the unconscious mind in what he wrote about psychoanalytic theory. The unconscious mind is the home of buried sentiments, subliminal thoughts, habits and reactions as well as deeply guarded fears, phobias and desires. By definition, we can never take stock of that inventory of unconscious thoughts and impulses because they are unconscious.
Deep down beneath what we perceive as our positive motivations are unconscious deep-seated desires for power, dominance and self-satisfaction. But since we would be ashamed and maybe even horrified by confronting those negative desires we downplay, ignore or strongly deny them. And we plaster over the ugly impulses of what really drives us in an effort to make ourselves look and feel better, to absolve ourselves of guilt and to have our own way.
So when we say, “All I wanted to do was . . . “ or “ I just told her that because I wanted to . . . “ or “I was just trying to . . . “ we present our intent as singular and unadulterated. But we’re mistaken. To be sure, parts of our intent may be positive. We’re not bad people, after all. We want to be helpful and nice and engage well with others. But if you closely and critically examine how we do it, you’ll realize that we often act and speak with malevolent or selfish hidden motives, every deed and phrase a Trojan horse of personal agenda.
Just a couple of examples from my own extensive catalog of complex motives and self-delusion:
As a graduate student in my late 40’s I raced bicycles with the Texas A&M Cycling Team, which was a club sport in which any student could participate. At the time I thought it was really cool (and it was) that I had a chance to put on maroon and white gear and compete for the school I had also attended as an undergrad in the early ‘80’s, a school I had loved since I was a child. But, without being aware of it, I probably was also pushed by a less honorable agenda: a chance to race my bike with a built-in excuse for sucking (well, after all, he’s twice as old as the rest of us). It was probably also on some level, a pitiful attempt to re-live college that looked foolish to most observers.
When I coached 9 year old boys’ soccer I used to justify chiding the referee as “I need to defend our kids from the other team that has been coached to foul hard for tactical advantage.” Now, there was probably an element of truth to that statement. But also lumped into that motivation was anger and embarrassment at a team with my name on it getting their little narrow butts beat by a better team. So I’d get angry and yell at the referee and convince myself that I was doing the right thing.
Anger is the driving factor in many similar episodes: the adrenaline pumping factor that makes me (maybe all of us?) lose all sense of proportionality. As it boils up, though, I can usually only see noble, self-righteous reasons for doing what I’m doing and only in the aftermath can I see the damage done by my foolish rage-driven reactions.
I need the ability, especially in the moment of speech and action, to recognize that intent is never singular, uniform, pure and positive. I need that recognition to make me slow to speak and act impulsively. I need the ability to sense when anger is welling up inside me and to use that as a signal to disengage until I calm down.
They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I believe that saying is true because I don’t think there are any purely good intentions. But, just as intent is not all good, it’s not all bad, either. Was racing on the A&M Cycling Team a fabulous experience where I learned a great deal about myself and made some lifelong friends? Absolutely. Did I do a good thing volunteering to coach little kids’ soccer teams? Yes, I did many, many positive things as a coach and I have great memories and friendships through that experience. But did I do some foolish and hurtful things in the process? Yes.