Paved with Good Intentions

“The road to Hell is paved with good intentions” is a warning against fooling ourselves into thinking we’re even an inch closer to building a better world by planning to do good. Only our actions toward that goal matter in the end.

However the idiom has a slightly different meaning for me. During the years I spent involved in New Age culture I picked up on an attitude that disturbed me a little more every year. The people I observed seemed to believe that as long as there were good intentions behind every action they took, they could do no harm.

This is ludicrous of course. I can attest to the emotional and financial harm I suffered at their hands, and I’m certainly not alone. Every day people are making life decisions spurred by the advice of self-deluded psychics, passing up needed medical attention for long-debunked alternative remedies, and tossing huge amounts of money down the drain chasing promises of ultimate power over one’s own deficient universe.

What makes these things especially frightening to me is that they so often lack any malice behind them.

The New Agers I’ve known have been some of the most caring and compassionate people I’ve ever met. Their hearts genuinely ached for the suffering endured by humankind. They exerted more energy in a day toward creating a more peaceful world than most people do in a month.

And yet most of them would fleece a person without hesitation. They had no qualms about charging one, two, three hundred dollars an hour to perform questionable spiritual services that they had no evidence for the efficacy for — over and above what the power of suggestion will yield. Seminars on the various “healing” techniques that one can become certified in (whatever that means) can easily cost you a thousand or more, and often these techniques are grounded not in empirical data but in the originator’s feelings and intuitions, pulled out of thin air.

I witnessed little or no concern from these folks that they were deceiving people or ripping them off. Somehow they just thought themselves immune to the possibility.

This contradiction of intention and action is something I’ve always had a dark fascination with. As the famous Steven Weinburg quote concludes, “…for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” This is just as true of alternative belief systems.

It’s interesting how people rationalize this sort of behavior, if at all.

Some of them see your money as God-given. They provide a godly service, and as a reward (or in “creative partnership”) God arranges for money to flow to them through you. The money becomes a divine endorsement for their legitimacy, so there’s no question of whether or not they deserve it; the more money they get out of you the better. If God grants them wealth it must mean they’ve done a lot of good for the world. Maybe if you were in a close partnership with God, you’d be wealthy too?

Some consider themselves humble messengers. They admittedly can’t prove that the knowledge they have to offer comes from ESP or cosmic intelligences, but they feel that they’ve been tasked to share it so they distribute it on a seemingly innocent “take it or leave it” basis. If you get something out of it, great, but if not that’s fine too. This approach doesn’t bother me if they don’t also present themselves as psychics and charge for their services. They want to be recognized as legitimate and compensated accordingly, but want to be exempt from the burden of validating their authenticity to earn that recognition. It’s a common cop out — when they’re right, they’re psychic; when they’re wrong, they’re just normal folk who make mistakes like you and me. To be fair, no one can perform perfectly in any job, but I have yet to find a psychic who’s correct to even a statistically interesting degree — though I found many who would happily accept my money.

And many are just naive. They’re taught something by someone who’s developed an air of authority and take it immediately as truth. They’re the blind that the blind are leading. They pay the hundreds of dollars an hour to learn a new skill and are assured that they too can make that kind of income teaching others. They eagerly set up their own little businesses, totally oblivious to the fact that they’re just new links in a chain of fraud.

It’s not a difficult line to cross. There was a point where I was on the verge of becoming an unwitting swindler myself. Thankfully I never quite had enough confidence in anything I learned to feel comfortable charging for it.

No one really thinks of himself as the villain; he is merely trying to better his universe with every choice he makes. Human history is brimming with atrocities that were conducted explicitly (and misguidedly) for the greater good. The agents of those atrocities were, in their own minds, well-meaning, and damage was inflicted on the world regardless.

Clearly it takes more than referencing one’s own intentions to determine whether or not an action will be harmful. “The road to Hell,” from my perspective, is the path of carnage one often leaves behind when he lets his intentions be his only compass. There’s no place in Heaven, allegorically speaking, for a good person with a legacy of destructive deeds.

We need not only to act, but to ensure that the results of our actions compliment our intentions. Kindliness and goodwill must be accompanied by this deep concern for ultimate outcomes. Otherwise it’s all for nothing.

If you’re a teacher of supernatural/spiritual beliefs and practices it’s extremely important that you keep asking yourself whether you truly offer something of substance. If you don’t, you’ll have to live with people like me floating in your wake who are justified in feeling deceived, manipulated, and stolen from. And your benevolence, though admirable, won’t make those wounds heal any faster.

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