On The Relationship Between Intention and Action

It so happened that my memories of the ‘resilience training’ and my watching of the Robert Redford movie ‘the Last Castle’ coincided. This movie is about an army general, who, for the best of motives, disobeys orders, saves some lives, but at the expense of others. He is court martialled, and sentenced to ten years prison.


Of course the general is a hero to many, and treated with great respect by the prison governor. He tries to behave ‘like a prisoner’ but because of the corruption of the prison system and of the governor, ends up behaving ‘like a general’, organising a revolt in the prison, which ends the term of the corrupt governor because he has lost control of the facility.


At the beginning of the movie, and at some point about one third through the governor asks the former (and yet to be again) general “What do you hope to get from your term of imprisonment?”. The general has not been openly soliciting respect or command from the other prisoners, but it is clear that people are looking up to him, and that a secret chain of command, with him at the top is forming within the prison.    The general replies “To do my time and go home” The governor replies “But your actions have demonstrated the exact opposite!”


Now in the resilience training seminar, the leader said ‘Well, you know, we judge ourselves by our intentions, and judge others by their actions.” This, I thought was pretty good under normal circumstances. After all, all there is available to us of other people is what they do. It is not until later that something else is possible.


I remember one time on a skiing holiday with my friends, the oldest daughter of the family had done something early in the day, amid all the rush to get us away and on the slopes by 8.30. It is an anxious time, and she knew that her father might sort of ‘explode’ in a fatherly kind of way at this mistake by his daughter. So she says in my transliteration of the German ‘But Papa I did not do it with intention!” (Papa, das habe ich nicht mit Absicht gemacht!) Here was someone who, at the age of about ten could differentiate between their actions and how they would be perceived, and their intentions.


The people who give advice about marital relations know this too. In one book I have (whose advice I have followed) they say ‘Make a ‘time out’ card that can be left lying around. On the card is written “Time out, Check out action and intention!”. This is a good thing. It works pretty well when the card is lying around. But then this ‘check out action and intent’ becomes part of normal relations. I say “:I did not mean to do X,Y or Z. My intention was to A, B and C.”


This practice has the benefit of acknowledging that the person who judged your action has a right to their judgement, and their feelings, if their judgement is right. It has the benefit that on seeing this, the other person does not have to ‘put down’ their partner’s judgement as wrong in order to justify themselves, but can call a ‘time out’ of the conflict in order to step outside of it for a minute, and have a look at what was intended, and how it came across, to see if they match. If they don’t then a better conversation can be had about what was intended, and how it came across.


This I think is a profoundly Christian piece of advice, because it allows for two things: truth and mutual vulnerability. Christians are about telling as much truth as is [possible to one another. This is what ‘speaking the truth in love’ means, I think. There are small truths like ‘You are doing something horrible’ and larger truths like “I am sorry. I did not mean to be horrible, I was meaning to …..” The second phrase is a bigger truth than the first. But in order to be able to tell it, an atmosphere of mutual accountability and mutual vulnerability has to prevail. Where this is not able to prevail, I am again in the world of ‘dealing with the foes’. John has Jesus ‘not trusting himself to them because he knew what was in men’s hearts.’ (John 2:24). And the psalms are full of people who ‘speak from a double heart.’ Dealing with the politics of parish life mean dealing with people who say one thing, yet intend another.


I remember thinking about one person that although they said a lot of good things, and expressed a lot of kind intentions, they were like a ‘black box’ in that I (and perhaps they) had no idea what the true content of their intentions was. All that could be observed about what this person really meant was by reading off whom they supported, whom they voted for in elections, and what they showed up to. For my own protection’s sake, I could not ‘trust myself to them.’ This is a hard lesson to learn. For some, who are not aware of their intentions, or do not have the strength to carry them through, good though they be, one can only look at ‘what comes out’ and see where that goes.


The other thing that comes to me as parish priest is that the administration of a congregation is in the first place a matter of actions which follow from intentions. If I call a meeting, in order to follow up something that I have been asked to do, or I have expressed an intention ‘I think this is a good thing” and as a result call a meeting to follow up this intention, and then no one replies to the e.mails saying that they will come or not, this makes running a congregation very frustrating.


When I was editing a journal, I knew (and came to accept) that each article that was published would be the result of five communications: one to ask for an article, one to confirm the ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, one to remind the person that the deadline was due, one to remind the person that the deadline was past, one to ask whether an article was coming at all! Lucky the journal only came out twice a year!


I think that in running a parish, I think that it ought to be a ‘norm’ that a shared set of assumptions about responding to communication is important in reducing the overall frustration level within the congregation.


In group formation the stages that are mentioned are ‘Forming’ ‘Storming’ ‘Norming’ ‘Performing’. The ‘norming’ part of group life is a way of ‘checking out intention and action’ so that the group can rely on the intentions of its members and not have to try to read off people’s intentions by their actions. This is where I have a disagreement with the resilience people. Group life is not a matter of just accepting what everyone else does and asking me to adjust my thoughts around it on the basis that they have good intentions. I would rather say that group life involves the process of developing a set of shared norms which are based around mutual accountability and vulnerability, in order to allow the group to function with a minimum amount of frustration.



About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
This entry was posted in Uncategorized, Weekly Reflections at St. John's Montreux and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to On The Relationship Between Intention and Action

  1. Doina Humbel says:

    It is also true, that between the thinking, spoken word and act is a strong relationship, but all initiated by the intention….

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