Motives Don’t Matter

One of the main criticisms of Gorbachev I’ve been hearing is that he didn’t really want to end the USSR. His original intention was to preserve it and he didn’t realize that the removal of censorship would immediately doom the USSR to a collapse.

I’m sure this is true. But I also don’t understand this fixation on motives and intentions. Nobody can know anybody’s real motives. People themselves are often unaware of what really moves them. We could psychoanalyze Gorbachev forever but who cares? What matters to me is the result. And the result of what Gorbachev did was amazing for me. I’m grateful for the result.

Here’s an example from my personal life to explain why motives mean nothing. Nine years ago today, I was in the concluding days of my first pregnancy. I was going to give birth and go on maternity leave. Two colleagues were going to take over my classes and finish out the semester. Tragically, my son didn’t survive. So I didn’t get a maternity leave. I had to resume teaching. The administration and the HR were very understanding and said, “hey, we are still paying the substitutes their full salary. They can keep teaching and you can do the grading or whatever else so you don’t have to be in the classroom.”

But guess what? The two colleagues – one the most liberal person we’ve ever had and the other the most conservative – adamantly refused to spare me even a day of being in the classroom. Both of them took the position that they should not do any work at all in these courses but continue to get paid. They sicced a union rep and a grievance officer at me, a grieving mother who had just lost her only child. I had no energy to fight them or even look at their stupid little faces. I went back to the classroom. It was very hard to be back with the students who had seen me only recently with a huge belly. The students are young, they don’t understand these things, so they weren’t hugely tactful. But I dealt with it and I found a sense of honor in not being beaten down by the tragedy.

I’m sure that these two colleagues weren’t trying to hurt me. I’m sure they didn’t have any conscious motive to be cruel. People can’t live with themselves knowing they are total pieces of shit, so they invent complicated stories to look good in their own eyes. “I didn’t mean to be naughty, Mommy” is an infantile excuse. Who cares what they meant? The result was still what it was.

And by the way, when I had an opportunity to tank their chances to get hired again – or at least not to fight for their jobs – I went to bat for these two individuals. I never told them about it because my judge is not in any place they can reach.

Motives, shmotives. The only thing that matters is whether you leave a bunch of wounded people in you wake as you move through life. If you did an enormous amount of good without planning for it, it is worth a lot more than wonderful intentions that bring suffering.