Survive or Thrive: Living within the Cultural Assault on Intentionality
Simply stated, it is difficult to live intentionally in our frenzied, fast-paced, entertainment-driven culture. This is neither a wise statement nor a shocking revelation. Most of us are aware of this frustrating truth to some extent, whether it is perceived as deeply disturbing or as a relatively minor annoyance. However it is experienced, it is a reality that we have created and within which we exist. On the one hand, we are propelled inexorably into a state and condition of constant motion, constant busyness, and frenetic activity. Our cultural values and conditioning exhort us to pack our schedules as completely and tightly as possible, to take on more tasks, more duties, work harder, faster, get more done…don’t ever stop and confront the gnawing inner void, the engulfing emptiness, fill it with distractions and noise, excessive stimulation, mind-numbing entertainment…just keep moving and don’t think about it. On the other hand, we are induced and lulled into a drowsy, sedated, and weary addiction to complacent passivity. Our cultural values and conditioning compel us to sit back and passively receive the fulfillment of our perceived needs from some external source, to expect environmental forces to provide us with comfort, security, conveniences, to demand that everything come to us…we should not have to exert or actively do anything for ourselves…entertain us, pacify us, please us, and do it exactly when and how we want it done…just don’t drop the remote and walk away from the television, movie, computer, or hand-held touch screen.
We are suspended and trapped between these two oscillating extremes on the cultural value continuum, which may seem directly opposed to one another but which in fact share the same underlying foundation: an assault on our essential human nature as intentional beings. While the latter extreme may seem to be a more obvious and direct opposition toward intentionality, the former extreme, although it may appear to represent a lifestyle of active intention, promotes an “active” orientation that makes it extremely difficult to act in a conscious and intentional way. Both of these cultural value dynamics support the denial and suppression of our human capacity and need to live intentionally, that is, to proactively make choices and decisions that result in self-created and personally meaningful lives. Whether we submit to be carried along by the chaotic and constant momentum of busy tasks and activities or to be intoxicated and anaesthetized by entertaining distractions, the ultimate result is the same: lives that are predominantly passive and apathetic, in which the one expression of intentionality is to intend to surrender our will, freedom, and an active engagement in real life for an illusory life that liberates us from the demands of these core existential modes of being. Of course, those of us within the existentialist tradition recognize its central emphasis on the dynamic of intentionality; we are, on at least an intellectual level, very aware of this, which leads inescapably to the question regarding our excuse for denying it to the extent we do so in how we actually live our lives. I don’t know about you, but I have too many clever and well-calculated excuses to justify my devotion to both extremes of the intentionality-opposed cultural value continuum, and none of them are “good,” legitimate reasons.
I am appalled at the extent to which I give lip-service to the importance of intentionality but contradict it in the way I live my daily life. Truly, in my and our defense, this is perhaps inevitable to some degree; it likely is not possible for any human being to live a completely, perfectly conscious and intentional life, and we certainly do at times need our denials and diversions to get through and survive the inherent demands of being human and living in our present culture. As Thoreau stated, “I have never met someone who is fully awake…How could I bear to look him or her in the face?” And yet, we are responsible for how we choose to exist within this world and culture that we have constructed and which we each sustain in some significant way. The great paradox is that living an unintentional life is of course a choice and that it is never a matter of “to intend or not to intend,” but rather in what direction we will intend…the choice against our intentionality is still an intentional decision. My essential belief is that being an existentialist, and more importantly, regardless of how one identifies oneself, being fully human and wholly alive, depends on existing in terms of surviving, living in “survival mode,” as we often say, and thriving, living in a state and condition of constructive growth to the extent possible within one’s current, given circumstances. I live too much of my life merely surviving, and although, or perhaps because, I have thrived greatly and even now am thriving in some ways, I have learned that these are very different ways of living life. I hope for myself, and us all, that we will continually find the courage and strength to live intentional lives that are grounded in thriving, rather than live passive lives in which the only possibility is daily survival. I am better than that, and so are you; mere survival is not a worthy basis for living a fully human life that is essentially constituted for thriving. We are intentional beings who are made to thrive, so let’s leave survival behind and pursue an actively engaged and intentional life!
-- Scott Kiser