On being intentional
January 24, 2019 § 2 Comments
There’s a word that crops up frequently these days when one person praises another. That word: intentional. How many times have I heard one friend praise another with, “She’s so intentional,” or, “He seems so intentional about us.” Many, many times. Indeed, I’m fairly certain I’ve used it countless times myself.
But it wasn’t until recently, when I noticed the word tossed around over and over again in the course of a single evening, that I paused and wondered, what’s really so good about being intentional?
Why was intentionality, rather than any other virtue – say, courage, charity, humility, or faith – pointed at repeatedly?
According to a cursory look at Google trend data, which measures the prevalence of a word or phrase searched over time, the phrase “be intentional” has increased in use by threefold since 2004. While some of the related search items suggest a legal context to the phrase, others, including “be intentional quotes” and “what does it mean to be intentional”, suggest a cultural understanding. And this makes me wonder even more: is intentionality perhaps a kind of modern virtue?
Recently, I’ve enjoyed Judith Shulevitz’s lovely book, The Sabbath World. In it, she delves into the history of time, in part, how the rise in productivity thanks to the industrial revolution has shaped our modern understanding of time. Until the industrial revolution, people structured their days according to what is called task orientation: measurement by an activity rather than a clock. For example, “You nurse a baby until she’s full, whether that takes ten minutes or forty,” writes Shulevitz. In modern society, however, we structure our days around the atomic clock. You work for a certain number of hours, and are paid accordingly. You’re paid overtime if you work late. A pre-industrial, task orientated society required longer, more grueling hours to finish a day’s work, and many hoped that the rise in standardized production measured by the atomic clock would lead to increased productivity and therefore more leisure.
Unfortunately, as Shulevitz points out, while we are more productive, we are also more rushed than ever.
Why? Working off the theory of Swedish economist Staffan Linder, Shulevitz points out that the increased productivity thanks to industrialization caused each hour of work to increase in value as well. This, in turn, increased the value of hours spent not working. “Non-work time has a higher ‘opportunity cost’,” writes Shulevitz, “each minute not spent completing one’s work assignments equals more money squandered.”
How does this pertain to being intentional? While reading Shulevitz, it struck me: could we admire individuals who are intentional precisely because of the unconscious, high value we place on each hour of time? Is our exact measurement of each passing hour and the opportunity cost of that hour if spent not working, making us feel even more pressured to “spend our time well?” I doubt pre-industrial workers in a task oriented society thought about intentionality – they merely thought about doing what they needed to survive, however long that took.
Of course, all this begs a more important question: is intentionality a good thing? Should we adopt it as a modern virtue? Certainly, it could be good at keeping us from straying into bad things, as well as prompting us to be good stewards of our time. But, I wonder if there is a dark side to this pervasive word.
Recently, I suffered through a long and severe illness that kept me nearly bedridden for several months. During this truthfully horrific experience, I felt my days expand from the hourly divided regimen I kept while working full time into a protracted and diffuse duration that slid languidly by. I was far from intentional. I was messy. I left emails unanswered for months. I only talked to close friends and family. I didn’t worry about the growing pile of medical bills on my desk. In those days, when I wasn’t sure if I would ever be a healthy young woman again, there was nothing more important for me to do than sit on the living room couch with a steaming mug of hot tea, curled up beside my mother. It was horrible, but there was a sliver of bliss in the center of it that I hope to retain now that I am (thankfully!) climbing toward health again.
I’m not saying that I want to return to the task orientation of a pre-industrial society – certainly I enjoy the luxuries that the industrial world has brought, not in the least medication for my disease! But the indulgence of wasting time, of disregarding the opportunity cost of an hour, of assuming that there will be an abundance of time to do all of the things that are truly worthwhile (say, reading a good book outside in the sun or cooking a homemade meal with friends), this is something I crave, and I fear that it is antithetical to the supposed virtue of intentionality, which needlessly pressures us to “make every hour count.”
Instead, I want to be a bit thoughtless with my time. I want to be a bit like Martha’s sister, Mary, who sat at the feet of Jesus and listened to him speak rather than help her busy and distracted sister finish the housework. I want to be a little bit recklessly unintentional.
ICYMI: Anne Lamott and more
May 7, 2018 § 1 Comment
As some of you know, I’ve taken a hiatus from the world of writing since the beginning of the year. This wasn’t planned. If ever you think you know the trajectory of your life, think again. Someone once told me: Life usually turns out far better and far worse than you imagined it would. Since last October, when I first felt the dull edge of pain that would blossom into what I now call my “weird” illness, I’ve found this to be true.
My life took a turn: pain in my neck, my back, and my hands so excruciating I couldn’t use the mouse for my computer, sometimes couldn’t turn my head, most of the time wore heating pads stuck to my spine. Fatigue so extreme, I would go out to dinner with friends only to leave early because I feared I would be too weak to drive myself home. Strange muscle pain I described to my many doctors as, “burning in my arms and legs.” Aching in my knees and elbows. An inability to get enough air into my lungs. There is much more I could write about what’s happened; maybe sometime I will.
For now there is this: hope. Hope in the fact that today I can sit at my computer and type this blog post. Hope in the form of doctors who think they’ve landed on a diagnosis at last (could it be Lyme Disease? it seems likely). Hope in the fact that my energy ever so slowly has returned, the pain ever so slowly abated, that though my recovery may be long, there can be full recovery.
Also: in the midst of this, physical manifestations of God’s mercy. Maybe some day I will write about that, too. Suffice it to say, the far better part has been true also.
In the meantime, I’ve been meaning to share on this blog some of the stories I wrote before taking my hiatus.
First, an interview with the lovely, quirky Anne Lamott. Like so many, I’m a fan of Bird by Bird, so you can imagine my excitement upon interviewing her!
And second, I wrote a few stories about classical music in the Dallas area. The Dallas Symphony Chorus celebrated their 40th anniversary this year and a new choral ensemble, Verdigris, appeared on the music scene. If you’re a Dallasite, I recommend them both to you! And even if you’re not, the stories of their successes and differing approaches to art inspired and intrigued me quite a bit…maybe they will you as well.
Advent: week one
December 1, 2015 § Leave a comment
As some of you may know, I rather like Advent.
Last year, on an impulsive whim, I wrote a blog post for each day of the season, a spiritual practice that proved healing and expansive for me.
This year, I’m not so ambitious. Instead of writing about Advent every day, I’m reading about Advent every day, using the wonderful book Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas.
May I suggest it to you? It’s chalk full of great writers like Thomas Merton and C.S. Lewis and Henri Nouwen and Madeleine L’Engle and so many many more. I’m only a day into the season, and I’m already smitten.
But despite my decision to read instead of write this go around, I can’t resist the urge to jot down a few minor thoughts about Advent, loving it as I do. So, here goes: a thought (or two) on Advent.
During Advent, people talk a lot about waiting. That’s because Advent, which means “arrival”, is the season in which the people of God wait for the arrival of God, both the celebration of His birth long ago and the promise of His return in the future.
We are all familiar with waiting. In fact, waiting makes up a good portion of our lives. We wait in traffic, wait at the doctor’s office, wait for emails, wait for packages, wait for dreams to come true.
Implicit in the idea of waiting is the belief that something is coming.
One doesn’t sit around waiting for someone who doesn’t exist to pop over for dinner. One doesn’t sit around waiting for rain in the desert. One doesn’t sit around waiting for money to grow on trees.
These things just aren’t going to happen.
But one does sit around waiting for a friend who promises to stop by after work. One does sit around waiting for the first snowflakes to flurry in Michigan. One does sit around waiting for the cherry blossom trees to bloom in spring.
These things will happen in a matter of time.
But what about God? Was God really born to a virgin in a manger? Was it really true when God promised He would come again? Should we wait for these things, or is that just so much insanity?
Part of me says it is. Part of me, the lonely part of me that has known God’s absence, the cynical part of me that knows promises are broken all the time, the hard part of me that says this is silly and can’t be true, those parts of me say it’s insane.
But another part of me, the peaceful part of me that’s been filled with God’s love, the hopeful part of me that knows God doesn’t make promises He doesn’t plan to keep, the warm part of me that’s moved by the idea of God making His way to Earth, those parts of me say, okay, I’m ready, I’m waiting. I may not understand it fully, but God’s mysterious and ineffable – it would be trite if I did.
So, how is this waiting thing going to go?