The road to hell is paved by hard-working Mennonites.
I grew up without a lot of proverbs in my family. I think this was because I was part of generation sandwiched between languages – my parents grew up with Low German proverbs that didn’t translate well to English, but spoke to me in English and hadn’t had time to pick up a lot of English proverbs.
I did, however, know that one about the road to hell. I didn’t understand it, but I knew it.
I think the proverb might have gone out of fashion of late – both in Mennonite circles and outside of them. Wherever I go, I hear excuses being made for people “who mean well.” Good intentions are forever an excuse for bad behaviour.
I intend to stop this.
I know what you’re thinking. If my intention to put a stop to all these good intentions is itself a good intention, then I have just created an intentional paradox and am doomed to fall into a vortex of misplaced magnanimity.
I’ll take my chances.
As a general rule, Mennonites love intentionality. Intentional communities are somehow better than accidental ones and whenever decisions are made in our polity, we feel better knowing that some serious intention came behind them. We like intention almost as much as discernment. And with the two together, we believe ourselves practically invincible.
Back when we were a people who truly lived in isolation from the world, it is possible that our good intentions only ever hurt each other. Which isn’t very nice but at least the damage was contained. If we were ever really in that much isolation.
You’d think we’d have learned to question every good intention by now. In theory at least, we’ve repented the bad old days of mission work when we sent well-intentioned folk off to civilize the heathen and teach them all the errors of their ways. Nobody in the “mission field” says anything like that anymore. They say things like “Wow. I think I gained more from that experience than any of the people I went to help.” As if this is still a shock to anyone.
And we’re full of remorse for our wrongheaded previous generations. It’s easy enough to repudiate the thinking of our grandparents and great grandparents. Well, not totally easy. It’s hard for the people harbouring fantasies of a perfect past of Anabaptist purity. Those people get a shock of discovery and then often convert their ancestral paragons into the worst of villains, apparently devoid of any good intentions.
In recent weeks, one of our senators hit the national spotlight by describing the operators of the residential school system as “kindly and well-intentioned men and women…whose remarkable works, good deeds and historical tales in the residential schools go unacknowledged for the most part and are overshadowed by negative reports.”
The senator is not a Mennonite but she – like so many of us – seems to have forgotten that proverb about the road to hell. (She also skimmed or missed the point of the TRC report but never mind about that right now). My point is: we do bad things all the time while being kindly and well-intentioned. It’s not an excuse and it’s nothing to be praised.
Mennonites aren’t the only ones who do this, but it is one of our special skills. None of us want to acknowledge it because good intentions are better than bad intentions and no intentions are just inconceivable. I mean, we could, I suppose, try to stop interfering in other people’s lives with all those good intentions of ours. But that doesn’t seem likely.
I know you’re thinking that sometimes actions based on good intentions aren’t misguided and unwelcome. Sometimes people actually like the casseroles that are dropped at their doorstep. Because they have told you and thanked you. And that might be true in your particular case. Personally, I have declared my house a casserole-free zone. So if your good intentions are leaning in that direction, well, maybe call first.
And make sure that the casserole in question pairs well with a gimlet.
The Gimlet of Good Intentions
The gimlet was created to prevent British sailors from getting scurvy, which was a good intention on its own. This variation, quite naturally, also serves to use up those stores of leftover rhubarb.
The perfect way to mix this cocktail would be to throw all the ingredients into the “vortex of misplaced magnanimity” and let that spin it around until thoroughly mixed, but as metaphors don’t work as well as shakers for actual cocktails, I suggest using the traditional manner.
1.5 oz gin
.5 oz rhubarb simple syrup*
.5 oz lime juice
Shake with ice and serve. Maybe even serve it to people who never gave any indication of wanting one but you personally think could use a drink. What could possibly go wrong?
*Still looking for that rhubarb syrup recipe?