I can’t tell you how many times someone, usually the brooding, tough-love type, has said to me, “Good intentions aren’t enough.” And in a sense it’s true. Countless pies, cookies, cakes, and pretty much every other sweet has fallen prey despite my very best intentions to not eat them all in one sitting. But in my experience, when someone goes out of their way to say something about the fallibility of good intentions, it usually about something much darker than my sweet tooth—and something far more instructive.
Anyone who has ever gone through the process of changing anything about themselves knows that it’s one of the rarest and most difficult human feats. It’s so rare that we instinctively celebrate those people who do it; if we can manage to overcome our natural jealousy about it. And in the stories we tell, the real reward for the hero is far rarer than gold, silver, or billowing capes. The real reward is their internal transformation.
When we think about change, we often think of it purely in terms of our internal worlds: our own desires. If you think about changing your diet, you might think of it purely in terms of your own choices, or your own willpower, to eat the right foods and not eat the wrong foods. Or your own choice to sit down and write what you’ve been thinking about, or push off your book project another day. To frame the context of personal change purely in the terms of your own internal world, purely in the terms of your own good intentions.
But stories hold a different life lesson for us: the one found in tragedies. Because the reality is, there are versions of events where you do everything right and things still go wrong. It happens to people all the time, and it’s a thread found in many of our stories, from the tragedies of Aeschylus to modern novels like The Sparrow and movies like The Departed. The works of art that state, for all to see, that sometimes you can have all the willpower and good intention—and things can still fall apart.
That’s a very, very important life lesson: you can do all the right things and things can still go wrong. But often I see people experience that life lesson, then draw the wrong conclusion: they think the problem was with good intentions, and these good intentions no longer matter. The truth, I think, is a little different.
I love a good tragedy—they remind us of the fragility of life, and that sometimes, despite all of our efforts, things fall apart. It all falls down. But despite that knowledge, I still contend that good intentions are enough. Because there is a real sense in which every tragedy is one chapter away from being a comedy.
Yes, it is important to know that sometimes we set out with the very best of intentions and things still go wrong. But unlike every tragedy, your story isn’t over. The fact that you’re reading this now means you still have time to find those good intentions—to once again, despite all the evidence, choose to do what you think is right, knowing that when it all falls apart, you still have the choice to start again.
May the road rise up to meet you!