11 August 2011

Today's Musings

My absolute favorite thing to do is to be in a room with people who think about the world differently than I do.  It affords me the occasion to evaluate what I think about various topics and exposes me to perspectives I haven't had the chance to entertain before.

For example, as part of my internship people from my studio gather once a week to discuss a reading or a presentation or some such thing.  Tonight we read about leadership.  The author makes a distinction between leadership with authority (such as that of the President Johnson) and leadership without authority (such as that of Martin Luther King, Jr.).  The author describes the importance and nuances of each type of leadership with examples from the Civil Rights movement.  Our group discussion about these readings has left some lingering thoughts, some of them more relevant than others.

I learned some things about the Civil Rights movement today.  Namely, the various layers of strategy employed by both Civil Rights activists and opponents impressed me.  I'd been unaware of many of the nuances of the movement.  For example, I was unaware that part of Dr. King's ideas of peaceful protest involved the hope that the opponents would react violently, thus giving his cause much-needed media attention.  Which brings me to my first musing: it bothers me that a type of protest that measures its success on whether or not the opponent reacts violently is called "peaceful."  Likewise, it bothers me that the intention of the Civil Rights marches were to provoke a violent response that would be captured on television.  I'm not saying all marches and sit-ins were like that, but the ones documented in our reading apparently fit that description.  So I voiced my surprise about the indirect use of violence to achieve a political end.  The group's response was that the indirect use of violence was different than the direct use of violence, and perhaps could even be considered "good."  There was little agreement with my observation that the indirect use of violence was shameful.  In my mind, there's an important difference between staging a protest with the intention of provoking a fight and staging one that intends to remain peaceful.  The author leaves little doubt about the intentions of the protestors in his example: after describing a horrific scene of police brutality and murder the author states, "At once.... King and the demonstrators had won" (Pg. 216). 

Now, there are many counter-arguments to my thoughts on this topic.  For example, one could point out that the demonstrators were attacking the violence more than anything.  It was as if they were saying to the rest of the world, "See?  This is what they do on national television--imagine what they do when the cameras aren't around.  You are witnessing what our people have been putting up with for more than a century.  Are you going to continue to allow this to happen in our country?"  In that sense, the demonstrators were less provoking their opponents than they were exposing their opponents (though the author uses the word "provoke").  And maybe that's why their "peaceful" protests were ultimately so successful.

Another point against my assessment could be that intentions don't amount to a hill of beans-- regardless of what the protestors wanted to occur, they did not initiate any violence nor respond to the violence with violence.  Their actions were peaceful, and ultimately actions are what define a person or movement.  We can only speculate on others'  intentions.

Which brings me to the bulk of my musings and a question I've puzzled over consciously since my freshman year at college:  Are actions more important than intentions?  "They" say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, which I suppose perpetuates the idea that intentions aside, your actions are what matters in the end.  And while I can absolutely see the merit with that thought, I also have trouble dismissing a person's intentions completely.  For example, suppose one woman accidentally gets pregnant and insists that the unwilling father help raise the child while another woman "accidentally" (read: "intentionally and against the man's desires") gets pregnant and insists that the unwilling father help raise the child.  While both situations are tragic in their own ways, certainly there's slightly less sympathy or acceptance for the second woman.  But again, how do you prove another person's intentions? 

As another and significantly less controversial example, I have some friends who were raised in deeply religious families.  Some of those friends have since decided to part with the church, much to their families' dismay.  In some instances, the families' actions are to proselytize all the more vigorously in hopes of "saving" their beloved family member from eternal damnation, often belittling or insulting the beloved family member in the process; however, their intentions are positive-- they want to share the security and joy they feel in their faith with someone they love.  Does that make up for the insults or belittling?  No.  But in my opinion it does help to take out the sting. 

Long story short, I haven't made much progress on answering my question.  There are numerous examples in my life where the only reason I've been able to forgive someone for something they did to me was because I could take comfort in "knowing" that person didn't intend to hurt me (again, can we ever really know?).  I'm sure I've hurt people in my life without intending to, and I hope they forgive me even though my actions did, in fact, hurt them.  After all, we all tend to be self-centered, and that makes it difficult for us to see how our actions affect people around us.  If I can ask for forgiveness on the basis of "I didn't mean to hurt you," then surely I can give forgiveness on similar grounds? 

Conversely, since it's difficult to assign legitimacy to what people "meant" to do, maybe it is wise to discount it.  Maybe it's better to examine only people's actions.  Someone close to me hurt me very deeply; he didn't mean to, but he did.  And because he did, I can be angry at him.  I don't have a reason to forgive him because he's no longer in my life, so why would I?  It takes much less effort to simply hold a grudge.

In some ways I can get behind that line of thinking, but personally, I doubt I'd ever forgive anyone because the act of forgiving would be so exhausting.  It's exhausting because I don't have the strength to "forgive and forget" without a reason.  I imagine I'm in good company on that point.  Most of us forgive because it's too inconvenient not to, not because of any virtue of our own-- if you fight with a sibling, it's typically (though not always) much easier to forgive her because you'll have to continue spending at least some time with her for the rest of your life.  And I'll bet none of us forgets an offense regardless of whether or not it's been forgiven (which then begs the question, did you really forgive?).

Some people have a talent for forgiveness, which I imagine takes great strength.  I also imagine people with that talent either see the world from a "well, she didn't mean to hurt me" perspective or else they think holding a grudge is too exhausting and have found a way to achieve forgiveness simply to relieve some of the burden of holding a grudge (as opposed to finding forgiveness too exhausting).  The first way of forgiving I find much easier; the second way I find nearly impossible, though I've read about people who seem to do it on a daily basis.  

Point being (as I ramble along), I haven't gotten anywhere on this question.  It seems my mind takes me in circles. 

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