Henry David Thoreau wrote, “One is not born into this world to do everything, but to do something.”
Thoreau, along with many of his contemporaries, lamented and rejected the excesses of modernity. They lived in a time that saw America beginning the transition from what we romanticize as an individualist agrarian culture to the impersonal, technology-driven machine of society we now recognize. Innovations in the production of goods and transportation (like interchangeable parts and the railroad) opened up massive new opportunities for wealth accumulation — and unprecedented new forms of human exploitation as urban centers filled with mills and factories.
Thoreau and other transcendentalists set to sounding the funeral bell for humanity’s relationship with nature. For them, the new world that was rising around them offered much, but not what would satisfy the innate human need for meaning that it ought to provide. In a world where everything is possible, Thoreau felt one runs a real risk of losing their sense of purpose by pursuing that consuming everything-ness.
If this mode of thought was largely limited to fringey Thoreau-types in the mid-19th century, it became the philosophical concern de rigeur by the middle of the 20th. After two devastating world wars and the invention of nuclear weaponry that could quite literally put an end to civilization, it’s unsurprising that thinkers like Albert Camus would look at the world around them and question whether anything had any meaning and whether life was worth living at all. These questions would come to dominate nearly every aspect of life, from the creation of art and literature to the rewriting of social norms and the rise of late capitalism in the West.
But rather than succumb to the despair or nihilism attending such questions (as many did), Camus chose to recognize the absurd joy humans take in their existence. He argued that while perhaps the world contained no inherent meaning in itself, it could nonetheless be filled with whatever meaning we read into it and that such meaning was indeed valuable. For him, the human act of seeking and creating meaning was not foolish, but rather hopeful. We are the authors of our own satisfaction, which is pretty cool.
In the 21st century, it seems like we’ve largely moved beyond the perennial existential conundrums of Camus and company, but of course, the human need for meaning still remains. And it seems to come from wherever we look for it: Whether at home, at work, at church, in nature, within ourselves, or elsewhere, people find meaning in their lives. The problem now is that too many of us don’t ever do much looking.
Rather than acting with the intention to discover or develop a life of meaning, we kind of just hope some cosmic algorithm brings it to us all served up and ready to go. Perhaps neither Thoreau nor Camus would be surprised that this is the world we have come to see around us, but I think they would both be disappointed.
The idea of “intentionality” has filled the pages of many a self-help book and been the subject of many a business development seminar, to the point that it’s basically a jargon term. We clearly know how to talk about being intentional with our goals and with our actions. All of which, obviously, is perfectly fine, but that doesn’t mean we understand it or even really mean it.
A shaky understanding of the principle of “intentionality” can also have an undesirable effect when it creates a hyper-focus on the “what” — the outcome — at the expense of the “why.” If you think about it, this isn’t surprising. Outcomes are concrete and therefore easy to keep in mind (you bought the car you were saving for!); motivations are often abstract and therefore harder to quantify (you wanted that car for a complex amalgamation of reasons involving being a better parent and resolving a long-suppressed childhood envy). But often, the outcome we worked so intentionally for does not actually satisfy the desire we felt in the first place. Therefore, it does not create the meaning we are looking for.
You probably see this all the time. How many friends, colleagues, and family members have you known whose every waking thought is earning a certain wage or receiving a certain promotion, but who live in perpetual dissatisfaction? This is achievement for achievement's sake, and it’s one of the oldest stories there is. Thoreau was far from the first to feel disillusioned with the world he saw and to be disappointed that it failed to give him what he sought.
It is not in things that any substantial meaning is to be found, but rather in the pursuit of purpose. We know this, but we’re really good at forgetting it. Too often we confuse the things we desire with the motivations that generate them — we focus on the car rather than the inner drives we think getting the car will satisfy. As a result, we find little real purpose in the attainment of things. So living intentionally means interrogating those desires and identifying the motivations they come from in order to clarify real purpose and meaning.
We are not made to do everything — to absorb or consume everything the world presents us as fun, interesting, or even vital. We are made to find and pursue a specific purpose in the midst of many possibilities. It is there we can find meaning, and there our intentionality should be focused.
Chase Harrison is a novelist and WSS staff writer based in Salt Lake City.
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