The Other I

May 4, 2008

Good will isn’t enough

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 9:22 pm

Since I returned from my visit to Maryknoll, I have been thinking about Sister Mary Edith who was the first person I remember suggesting that good intentions are not enough.  We were studying the Greek tragedies, and she said their basic message is that it isn’t sufficient to want to do the right thing.  If we do the wrong thing, there will be consequences that are often as disastrous as they would be if we had deliberately chosen to do evil or even innocently made a mistake.

This has become an important principle, and I’ve reflected on it in hundreds of different situations big and small.  If I mean to give my child an aspirin but give him a capsule of something less benign – Viagra, perhaps, or Valium – the consequences will be as bad as they would be if I had done it deliberately.  If a workman doesn’t close the cargo door before a plane takes off, it is as destructive whether it was on purpose or not.

I had this same nagging worry when I left Maryknoll last Sunday too.   Maryknollers are intelligent, educated, outstandingly caring and hard working.  But the majority I think, like most workers in developing countries, are not by nature analytic thinkers.  They are doers.  I’m not sure why this is so.  Is it a reflection of the basic attitudes of Christianity with the Pauline emphasis on conversion?  Is it the fundamentally doctrinaire approach of Roman Catholicism with its insistence on papal infallibility and its doctrinal rigidity?  Does it grow out of a conviction that however much we might strive to help the poor, material well-being is less important than obedience to God’s will and his commandments?  It may be all or some or none of these.  Whatever they may or may not be, I found myself wondering if Maryknoll’s outstanding capacities and dedication could be more effective if it were founded on a broader foundation of economics and social and political theory.

For myself, I had reached the conclusion even before leaving Maryknoll that striving to convert others was an assault on their dignity and culture.  I still believe that the only worthwhile thing to do is to live with as much integrity and love as one can, to be responsible for oneself in the service of others, and to let that speak for itself. 

I know now I never belonged at Maryknoll for the longer term, and it wasn’t because Maryknoll hadn’t changed fast enough or had left me to work in the kitchen and sewing room for almost nine years with decreasing hope of ever going to the missions.  I do not have the talents to be an activist.  I’m an academic.  I can think about social problems, understand economic theory, and explore the complexity of solving problems of poverty and education and injustice.  I can compare the effectiveness of different programs, and discuss their relative potential versus possible limitations.  But when it comes to putting these theories into practice, I am far less talented and lack the perseverence that is so outstanding among so many Maryknollers.

And I live with the terror of believing that simply wanting to do the right thing isn’t enough.  Hard-working, dedicated, intelligent people of immense good will don’t always achieve the good they hope for.  They We can also do terrible damage.

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