Intent is not impact: the nature edition

photo by  E. Weller

photo by E. Weller

Years ago when I was facilitating anti-racism trainings, I often used the phrase: intent is not impact. You’ll hear this phrase a lot in social justice circles. It’s based on the understanding that our actions may not have the consequences we desire, and that just because we didn’t mean for something to turn out the way that it did, doesn’t mean that we aren’t responsible. 

Most of us get that. We know that things don’t always turn out the way we intended them to. Heck, about 18 times a day I say something just a little bit dumb that sounded A LOT better in my head. But somehow when it comes to our interactions with others, we think that what we meant is as important as the effect it had on the other person.

And, look, I’m not saying that intention isn’t incredibly important. It’s essential, actually. Good may happen accidentally, but it’s much more likely to come from intent. Intent is often a prerequisite to change. All I’m saying is that intent isn’t enough.

As I found out recently.

Picture this: my son comes running inside saying there’s a baby bird stranded on our lawn. I go out, and sure enough, there’s a little baby robin near our front sidewalk looking around frantically and flapping its little, nonfunctional wings. It was this close to flying but that wasn’t going to happen in the next 5 minutes.

We knew we had to do something. There are a lot of predators in my neighborhood: foxes, hawks, falcons, about 800 neighborhood cats, my two crazy puppies, bird-eating muppets, etc etc. The bird was chirping and calling all sorts of attention to itself… I had to do something!

So, I went and got a paper towel, chased that baby bird around my yard—it couldn’t fly but it sure could hop!—and put it back into the nest.

Whew! Except.

I… uh… accidentally… put the baby robin back into a sparrow’s nest. And the sparrows were NOT happy about it.

At this point, I want to defend myself. I was heading out to a meeting so my time was really  limited, and I had to make a quick decision. Robins hang out on that tree ALL THE TIME… How was I to know it wasn’t the right nest? I was trying to do something good, for goodness sakes, but I’m not an animal-care-worker-knowledgeable-person. I couldn't have known that I would unleash the fury of many sparrows onto that baby bird’s head. I did my best, and I meant to do a good thing.

See that? That’s a perfect example of intent not equalling impact. My intent to help the little bird did not have the intended impact of helping at all. And as the sparrows forced the baby bird back onto the ground, I was really at a loss as to what to do. My intent to be helpful was pretty much useless in the situation. Even so, I herded the little bugger underneath a bush so that it at least had some protection from predators.

And while it’s true that “intent is not impact” was dramatically reinforced for me in this literal life and death situation, I started thinking about how I don't actually find myself using that phrase very often anymore. It’s not that I believe this any less than I did before or that I’m less committed to noticing my—or other’s—impact, learning from it, and being accountable.

So what’s different?

Mostly I’m different, I think. I think “intent is not impact” became a way for me to dismiss folks’ good intentions as if they were irrelevant. An easy phrase to not see the person who was having a negative impact as also being a person who also had something to contribute. It was a way for me to dismiss a situation that is complex with a simple phrase without giving it my full attention.  And while I don’t think intentions are enough, I do think they matter. Because frankly, my intentions don't lead to positive impact nearly as much as I’d like them to, and I’d love it if folks could see me through the haze of my not-perfect action.

So, my intent isn’t good enough. It never will be good enough. I’ll have to ask for grace from people (and baby birds) to let me be a human being who makes mistakes. And sometimes those mistakes will have consequences, and sometimes those consequences will be dire. I have to live with those and hope they don’t happen too often and take too many baby birds down with them. It’s not enough to say I didn’t mean it or that my intentions were good. I have to ask for grace, give myself grace, and try again tomorrow.

I'm committed to that.

This post was originally published at Tuesday Ryan-Hart's site.