Monday, January 07, 2008

Living An Intentional Life

A friend introduced a concept to me tonight which is difficult, and ruins the way in which I'd like to see things. I would prefer to see things the way I did before, which is within the parameters of a kind of halo, a sort of golden haze. You see, we spend most of our lives trying to justify the actions of others. We try to come up with reasons for why they are all right, for why the people who have hurt us haven't really, and how things are okay. We don't like to think badly of people and would prefer to explain away everything they do. And we end up relying upon weak reasons, and assuming that these are answers to questions. What my friend did was point out two very weak reasons that I rely upon when it comes to the questions I ask myself.

Generally I let myself do the things I want to do. This is especially true when it comes to gathering or amassing knowledge. I have never thought of knowledge as bad, no matter the form in which it comes. It does not particularly bother me if a book is filled with prurient or graphic material, so long as it is interesting and adds to my world view. But that becomes the question- in what way does this book help me? Why am I allowed to read it? Can I only get the ideas available in this book through this particular book, smutty as it perhaps is, or are the ideas available to me from a different source? And if they are, what gives me the right to read this book instead?

I have always answered this question very simply. "I want to," I would say. "Curiousity." Curiousity has opened innumerable doors to me. It is because of curiousity that I should be allowed to research, look into or read everything I want, no matter its content or its nature. And I believed this to be an answer.

So my friend put it very strongly, and even slightly cruelly and said "If that is truly your answer, then you are simply a slave to your passions and desires, as much as the next person down the street."

And I have never thought of myself that way, because I have always thought of people who are slaves to their passions or desires as "others" of some kind, other people, but certainly not me. People who perhaps suffer from some sort of addiction, or who do absolutely everything they want, especially bodily, who indulge their every desire. But do not I indulge my curiousity freely? I place no limits on my curiousity and I never have, because I have never believed that knowledge is inherently bad or evil. But my friend showed me a different way of doing things, one that I have not thought of before, and now I have thought about it and realize that it is right.

What one must do is live an intentional life. One must realize the very meaning behind each possible moment, each second, every minute of time and the way that it is spent. Whatever one does, one must realize the various choices that lie before them, and the various ways in which they can spend that moment. The goal is growth, both personal and on behalf of others, and to amass the skills necessary to accomplish ultimate growth, stronger and better, for other people. So when I spend my time, the question becomes, "Why am I doing what I am doing? What am I going to gain from this? And is this the best use of my time?"

These questions may seem deceptively easy. In truth they are extremely hard. When I sit down to read a book, it is worthwhile to question what I am going to gain from this book. Is it the ideas that are new and original? Is it the point of view that is interesting and novel? Why am I spending my time in this manner- and is it worth it for me to do so? Or as my friend put it, more specifically, "How dare you read books of that nature [those that contain obscene or smutty references for instance] when you haven't learned all of Tanakh, or learned Gemara?" The question becomes- what is my goal, and how am I getting there, and what will aid me the most in my quest for personal growth. Will it be reading this book, which gives me an idea I have seen before, but in a new form? Or would it be reading something else that will allow me access to a new and interesting idea, one that I have never understood or comprehended before, especially if it something in Tanakh, for instance?

To live an intentional life is to realize and recognize the possiblities that lie within every moment. At this moment in time, I could be writing this post, or reading a book, or talking to a friend, or drinking a soda, or innumerable other things. But I have chosen to write this post at this point in time, and now that I have done so I have decided this is the best use of my time and must commit all my efforts and energies to focus on this. The difference between I and someone else is that I have chosen to write this post knowing all the other possibilities and uses of my time. I have chosen to do this anyway. I have prioritized, weighed my options, and made a decision, determined that this is the most important thing at this moment in time to be doing.

In this way, everything becomes more precious. The time I spend with a friend is precious because I realize the other things I have in theory "given up" in order to do so. All things are a form of sacrifice, because every moment is laden in possibility. When I talk with someone, or spend time with someone, this is deliberate. It is not something I do on a whim; it is a deliberate choice on my part, an intentional, conscious decision. Because of this it gains far more meaning.

Do you understand the widescope large-reaching idea at hand here? To live every moment with intention, to do everything because one has understood it and believes that one will gain from it. Not to do things because they feel right or they seem right or because they satisfy one's curiousity, but to do things because they are true and they will help one or others to grow. To do things for a purpose, for a reason, for a goal. To do things, in other words, in order to become and to be the best human being I can be.

It is a burden to live in such a way; it is not easy. It takes much of the light-heartedness out of everything, for one must consider and carefully decide whether it is necessary and why. It is not that someone who lives in such a way must be sad all the time; of course not- but when they take their pleasure now, they take their pleasure deliberately, intentionally, consciously, knowing what they do. The idea is always to know what one does and what it means, not to lie to oneself or trick oneself into thinking that something will be meaningful when it will not be. One must dedicate one's time to a goal and then work for that goal.

One's life in this way becomes a sort of sacrifice, a dedication, given up for a goal, laid before God on an altar. Every moment can be defended to Him- everything we do can and should be able to be explained. In all ways I am working for a purpose. Such is the ideal espoused by such as Halakhic Man. People who live with intention, with a goal and most importantly without lies. Doing things because one feels them to be right, or because one is merely curious, is a way of lying to oneself, of telling yourself something is important because you want it to be important. But that is not so. And if you dared to admit it to yourself, you would know it is not so.

This is a very difficult way to live. I find it very daunting. But it makes all things beautiful because it makes them meaningful. Everything one does, if taken in this way, becomes meaningful. It is a methodology applied to life. Before I do anything, I would ask myself, "Why am I doing this? What is the purpose? What do I gain?" And if I can answer these questions appropriately, in a manner that makes sense and is logical and true, then I can proceed. But if I cannot, and if my answers fall short- if my only answer is that I wish to do it, I want to, I am curious and I want it- that is not an answer.

To imbue a life with meaning is a very difficult thing. It may even be an impossible thing; to offer up every second of one's life to God. But it is something to strive for, something which is difficult but which is beautiful- to try to give every moment over to Him, or to growing in a way that allows me to better serve Him or His people. To live a meaningful life, a truly intentional life; to make all things deliberate, conscious nigh-on impossible. And the people who would try to do this are those who would become frustrated with themselves for failing, but then, they are struggling to live for an ideal. The only thing which we can ask of ourselves is to truly try, in every way possible.

It is hard, and in many ways I don't want to do this, but since I believe it is true, I see that I will have to try. And I do not know if this is the way that everyone should or must live- I only know that I see why it is true, and why I would have to try.


AStudent said...

Excellent post. One of the hardest things to do in life. An even harder level (and loftier) is having the right intent even for the "good" things ie do you visit a hospital or pack food for the needy for shabbos because you want to walk away feeling good, or because you really want to help the unfortunate? Of course there is some overlap and balance, but true, unadulterated kavanah is hard to attain.

yitz.. said...

Chana you are blessed with good friends..

There are two ways to go about this goal of an intentional life, 1. rooting out everything that is unintentional. 2. increasing that which is intentional until there is no time left for the unintentional.

Whether one chooses 1 or 2 is dependent on the type of neshamah they have. (whether or not they are aware of it)

As a personal example, if I try to focus on all of the bad in my life and root it out, it just leads to intense depression. (Ie. I really can't handle mussar.) If I go about focusing on what I'm doing that is good and do more and more of it, I can very easily eliminate the bad without ever having to devote time or energy to focusing on the bad. When I do this, it makes me happy.

That's the secret to my life, anyways, find the positive things and increase them.

as a final caveat i'll just remind you that Chazal says that a person only learns Torah from where their heart desires. (wanting something isn't always bad, and you can't judge a book by its cover---i once read through a semi-trashy book (Inversions by Ian M. Banks) that was utter boredom. Only by my compulsive need to find out what happens in the end was I able to keep reading. When i got to the end it made sense out of the whole book and i loved it :) It was really brilliant. it still makes me think years later---i would re-read it but i couldn't bear to slog through it again!)

הצעיר שלמה בן רפאל לבית שריקי ס"ט said...

Ah, amazing post; as that student said- probably THE most important topic in life, and perhaps even the most important thing ever written in these nonsensical 'Jblogs'.

Which is what I'm starting to really like about this blog; it's written in a way where the author’s idealism and sense of purpose in life can be seen, but also her lighter more human side. Her silliest musings, and the deepest meditations on the true purpose of 'being' in this universe.

Well, I hope this is a subject that we all deal with, and to quote the author of 'sefer cheshbon hanefesh' 'some of the best mussar is not learned in a book written hundreds of years ago, but heard from ones peers.

Personally I have always been absolutely afraid of the implications of living life totally 'consciously' (which would also imply for example, that before eating you would think "I am eating these nuts now SOLEY for the purpose of having protein in my body, so I can therefore serve G-d”, and not "mmm, I think I feel like a burger"), but on the other hand, I can't say I live life as 'unintentionally' as most people I see.

So; I think there are levels (I am not making this up by the way, it's all laid down in the messilat yesharim). Lowest level is just trying to stay within the guidelines, therefore living at least partially 'intentionally', in that one is avoiding evil for G-d’s sake. The next level is actively (at least subconsciously) being constantly aware of ones purpose in life, no matter what they do (i.e. you wouldn't dream of walking into a club to "hang out and meet some people", it could be it's actually halachically ok, but it's not something 'one who serves G-d' would do, rather the way of the mindless. The highest level is someone, like you so eloquently described, who's whole life is based on a real, heavy, and solemn feeling of purpose (like those blessed girls who dedicate their lives to G-d and become nuns etc.(or the protestant equivalent).

Now, I actually know some people like that and they are 'heavy'. I don't know if G-d intends for people, again, like you said, to be so solemn, that's not natural.

One think I am sure about is there would be no excuse to read some novel that, for example, portrays in words actual sexual acts, or, even listening to the songs of 'linkin park', unless one is certain that their listening to it would honestly make them a better person.

'Linkin Park' is art. Literature is a form of art. So the real question is what kind of art is acceptable to 'the person who serves G-d'. Some types of art are acceptable, i.e. pondering on them does subjectively make one a better person (if, of course there is no 'forbidden material therein'. You know, I once 'befriended' a young Mormon minister in SLC on the way to LA, and he asked me if I was going to relax on the beach (enjoying G-d's goodness), as was surprised when I answered "there might be unbiblical things on the beach". I would definitely appreciate G-d more seeing all his creations, but it was deemed by G-d better if I look away). But one can definitely grow from a movie as from an ethical work by a Rabbi in the middle ages.

There is also the legitimate theological reason of 'a need to chill out’; I have heard that that is part of being mentally healthy, and therefore part of being a good 'G-dly servant'.

I would also though, admit, that we can learn a thing or two from the solemn-ness and purpose of people like nuns, monks and 'imams.

ולסיום אומר "הרחמן הוא יטע תורתו ואהבתו בלבינו, ויהיו כל מעשינו לשם שמיים"

אנכי, עבד לא"ל
שלמה בן רפאל

G said...

A few thoughts (for the record, I highly resent those posts that necessitate legitimate comments):

-- The way I was taught this idea growing up was to stop thinking in terms of "Why not?" and start thinking in terms of "Why yeah?!"

--"we spend most of our lives trying to justify the actions of come up with reasons for why they are all right...We don't like to think badly of people and would prefer to explain away everything they do."

Sorry, not with you on this one. Difference btwn your baseline being "innocent until proven guilty" or "guilty until proven innocent".

--"as my friend put it, more specifically, 'How dare you read books of that nature [those that contain obscene or smutty references for instance] when you haven't learned all of Tanakh, or learned Gemara?'"

This quote bothers me in the extreme on a number of levels. I'll choose the most basic for here: so, if you had learned all of T"NK then it would be okay?

הצעיר שלמה בן רפאל לבית שריקי ס"ט said...

well, 'G', then maybe then, you'd know how to properly approach it..

does chana ever respond to these comments by the way?...

Chana said...


Just quickly, as to your last- of course not, and of course not again- it was just a way of demonstrating to me how foolish I was being.

Anonymous said...

Now you know why I'm so serious. :-)

I have found this to be an outlook on life that is actually quite daunting once accepted, and very difficult to explain to other people. I have difficulty telling certain people why I will watch certain films or TV programmes or read certain books but not others. To me, the key question is not whether there is sex and violence (which is in Tanakh anyway), but whether I can learn something from it, especially something unique. To be honest, I have never really conceived of it in terms of justifying my reading 'immoral' books; it's more that there is so much good stuff out there, more than I can ever read, that I don't want to waste my time with rubbish.

G said...

it was just a way of demonstrating to me how foolish I was being.

Might want to confirm that point. It's the difference btwn the material being off limits due to the material itself versus the material being off limits compared to a "higher pursuit' that could otherwise be taken up.

yvette said...

YES!! This was an excellent post. I think this is one of the things that pushes you from being "good" to being "great". Not merely how to build oneself intellectually, but to do so in a way that makes you a better person.

Chana said...

I have several points.

Firstly, this is all credited to my friend. None of it is mine; it is all his. So anything you like here is his, not mine.


With that being said:

A student,

I agree that it's one of the hardest things to do, and appreciate your mentioning the next step.


Yes, I know; I am lucky to have such a friend. I like your approach of trying to take more of the good rather than concentrating on trying to eliminate the bad. Hurrah Chassidut ;-)


Just remember this was my friend's insight, not mine; really it's his idea that you like. In any case, I agree with you that there are different ways to learn or to approach God, and that ideas come in different kinds of packages.


I like your "Why yeah?!" approach. It makes me smile. Also, he made it quite clear that the material in and of itself could be deemed reprehensible- it was just an act of comparison.


Yes, now I understand why you are so serious.


I think you're right (in terms of delineating the line between goodness and greatness.)

Anonymous said...

Chana,let's say you have to pick only one of the following things:

1.Listen to the music because it helps you relax/ you happen to be in a strange frame of mind.
2.Make time for someone's venting.
3.Finish your homework.

Let's also assume that the choices mentioned are of equal importance.

I know that you are asked to help great many in the dorm with their issues....

Which will you pick and why?

Chana said...

Anonymous 12:25,

Is this even a question? Obviously 2, because it's the most important. But I feel like that's tangential to this topic/ I'm not seeing the relevance.

Elster said...

Not trying to rain on anyone's parade but...

Isn't this obvious? Of cuorse this is the correct approach froma torah point of view at least. The tough part is implementation. The Yetzer Horah has other idea - and the key is always man's (or woman's) ability to overcome foolish pursuits for serious, torah ones. am i simply missing something?

SimchaGross said...

It is not a binary decision between good and bad, but a difficult and subtle decision between good and better. Also, it not only in scenarios where the "Yetzer HaRah" is relevant. Even in a scenario of hanging out with friends, or sleeping for longer then necessary, you must ask "can I do more"? It is a constant questioning of how to grow and gain, in every second and every pursuit.

Anonymous said...

wow to be 21, and ideal again. Alas I envy those who still haven't gone out into the worlld yet and tried to work 12-14 hours a day and then spend all their "free time" aside from family of course, immersed in such holy pursuit.

Chai18 said...

"-The purely righteous do not complain about evil, rather they add justice.
-They do not complain about heresy, rather they add faith.
-They do not complain about ignorance, rather they add wisdom. "
Arpilei Tohar p. 39