A few days ago, I observed happy reunions occur when a group welcomed back a friend who’d been under the weather for a few weeks. It was the kind of heartwarming moment that reminds a person of the value and beauty of friendship. Even with that, a recurring two-part pattern caught my attention. Part A was a welcome with hugs and genuine expressions of joy; Part B was a moment of confession where the ones offering welcome each apologized, in their own words, for not having called or visited during the friend’s absence. Each said they had intended to do so but hadn’t gotten around to it. While some things are easy to procrastinate or even forget, certain moments bring us face-to-face with people or causes we value and in those moments, we wince at the consequences of our delay. Even so, they were so glad to see their friend, they said. And indeed, they were.
It reminded me of an object lesson I observed some years back during a sermon. A pastor who was weary of excuses and procrastination standing in the way of the church’s progress passed out round, coin-sized, wooden discs with the letters TUIT printed on it. Once everyone had received one, he said, “Keep this in your pocket. Whenever you fail to follow through on something, never let it be said it was because you couldn’t get around to it.” The example is a little corny, perhaps; but memorable.
Listening to those welcome-accompanied confessions, the exchange reminded me of the aphorism, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” It is a phrase I heard on occasion as a child. Whenever I catch myself saying those words, it generally indicates I’m frustrated or impatient about something. I’ve been intending to teach myself the harmonica ever since I retired, or at least resume playing the piano. Except for a few lame attempts, I haven’t gotten around to it yet. I guess I’ve been busy paving with my intentions.
The exact origin of this proverb is unknown. It appeared in a London newspaper at least as early as 1828. The phrase has been utilized by the likes of Charlotte Brontë, Søren Kierkegaard and even Ozzy Osbourne. Not quite Peter, Paul, and Mary, these three strike me as an unlikely trio. Trying to visualize those three sitting down together at a dinner party, it is difficult to imagine what other common ideas they might share. So far as I know, only one of the three made headlines for biting the head off a live bat.
Interpretations of the statement vary. Some take it to mean that wrongdoings or evil actions are often undertaken with good intentions; or that good intentions, when acted upon, may have unintended consequences. I think both of those are viable understandings of it, but I was more familiar with a different reading of the phrase: a person may have the intention to undertake good actions but, for whatever reason, fails to follow through.
Jesus told a parable in Matthew 21 about a father who directed each of his two sons to go work in the vineyard. One said he would go, but he didn’t. The other initially refused to work but later changed his mind and went. Jesus asked the simple question, “Which of these did what the father wanted?” Unless the parent’s ultimate goal was merely to reinforce his sense of authority and have his heart warmed by empty promises, I’m guessing the prize goes to the one resistant son who originally objected but later changed his mind and followed through on the request.
At the end of the day, much of life is about follow through. When learning to play basketball as a youngster, coaches would emphasize the importance of a good follow through when shooting. It is the last part of the shot where the extension of the arm and movement of the wrist provide just a little more guidance and accuracy to the ball, improving its chances of going into the basket. No matter how flashy the move that made the shot possible, or how good the form looks when shooting, the finish is important. Slacking off at the end can negatively impact the game.
I was raised in a world of handshake deals and the belief that a person was only as good as their word. I much prefer that approach to multi-page contracts and half-hearted guarantees. Continuing trust in such an arrangement is possible only when the parties involved follow through on their commitments. My wife, Judi, says three things that caught her attention in the days leading up to our courtship were the way my mind worked, that I listened when she talked, and the fact that I followed through on the things I committed to do. Of course, I know the true reasons were my handsome looks and debonair ways, but her version is good too!
When I prepared to move out of my first apartment, the management company noted that I’d never missed a payment and assured me I’d be welcome to return to their properties any time in the future. A car financing company representative gasped under his breath and whispered, “He’s never been late.” the day I called for a payoff amount. Just last month, I called to cancel an internet provider service after about ten years as a customer. The phone representative made a similar comment. I’m under no illusion that I’m the only one who pays their obligations on time, but am surprised that it is shocking for people when it happens. Over time, follow through helps redirect the road we’re paving toward a more desirable destination.
I’ve thought a lot about paved roads in recent months, partly because of riding a bike over Indiana country roads this summer. At least part of the objective of pavement is to provide a smooth(er) ride. Here in Hoosier land, there are three common choices for pavement: asphalt, concrete, and especially for rural areas, chip and seal. The latter consists of a thin base of hot tar and a layer of tiny stone chips. It is better than dirt, gravel, or the Oregon trail, but there are a lot of bumps and jolts between those Indiana cornfields. You’ll want to maintain a firm grip on your coffee cup if you’re prone to drink and drive. However neat the surface may initially look immediately after it is paved, in a short while expect to see cracks return. When that occurs, prepare to be shaken. If any of those roads lead to hell they may be paved, but they aren’t especially smooth or wide.
If good intentions pave the road to hell, I wonder what kind of pavement I’ve been putting down and to where does it lead? Do I even know in which direction the road I’m building is headed? Does forgetting to put away the tools or other items I’ve left out after using them count, even if I’ve been reminded to do so a few times and absentmindedly grunted “okay” in response? Does not keeping one’s appointments matter, especially if it meant someone else wasted their time and opportunity waiting for them? Or even showing up, but arriving twenty minutes late? Particularly annoying to me is when I hire a service, they give me date of completion, and repeatedly fail to meet their own chosen date.
Or take political campaigns as an example. How often does the list of promises and stated intentions never materialize, perhaps because issues are complicated, especially when it involves working collaboratively with others who hold a different opinion? Whether you were on board with “Change We Need,” “Make America Great Again,” or “Build Back Better,” chances are a few more miles of pavement made of good intentions have been put down along that wide path that leads to destruction. Best I can tell, we still need change, the swamp remains full, and the building is not finished.
Probably none of us is perfect on this score. Good intentions provide initial inspiration and motivation. They set forth the beginning of a map toward a desired outcome. Distractions will come – you can count on it! Complications arise – it’s a part of life. But work on the follow through like it matters – because it does. We’re all paving a road to somewhere.