Living with Intent

“Intentional community”. These two words, taken separately, are tossed around a lot in our society. “Intent” is something we hear about from the judicial system: Was there intent to harm? We put a lot of stock in the intentions of other human beings—a surprising amount, come to think of it, considering how enigmatic and intangible “intent” really is.

“I didn’t mean to!” is the mantra of many a child whose siblings or friends inadvertently suffered harm at their hands, and from my experience I’d say it was the accidental harmer who ultimately suffered longer. Knowing I’d hurt a friend and they probably resented me, even a little bit, for it, was a terrible, terrible feeling.

But what is there to be done? I can say, “ I didn’t mean to!” until I’m blue in the face, but will it do anything to lessen the reality of my friend’s pain? No, it won’t. It is important for children to learn that their actions, even the actions they may have committed without thinking, can have consequences on others. What troubles me is when children grow up into adults and haven’t internalized this seemingly simple realization; that is dangerous.

What is dangerous, too, is misunderstanding what a “community” really is. It is easy when we call any group of people a “community” to imagine that the word is just the collective noun for human beings, like a group of crows is a “murder” and multiple whales become a “pod”. In the education system we talk a lot about schools as communities, but as my one professor puts it, calling a building full of kids a “community” doesn’t make it one; it’s still just a building full of kids unless we do something to create community.

Communities aren’t always pretty, either. Attending my first congregational meeting in several years brought this messiness to light: people did not always agree, sometimes voices were raised or looks exchanged, and one could very easily come away with the impression that this is a group of people who do not get along. But you know what? We do get along! Everyone at that meeting felt they had a stake in the work of the church, and everyone at that meeting came out of a concern for a group of people they cared a lot about. I won’t say it was always comfortable, because it wasn’t, and there were moments when I felt ready to stand up and leave, but ultimately I came to realize the messiness was a natural part of being a community. The messiness stemmed from passion and invested interest, not malintent.

What does it mean, then, once one puts those words together: “intentional community”? For my part, speaking as a city-dwelling Mennonite, this phrase brings to mind groups of people who have removed themselves from the influences of broader society, such as Hutterites and Amish people. Marie has helped me to see that intentional community comes in many shapes and sizes, and led me to consider what it means to live with intentionality. For some people, making a dramatic change in lifestyle is the best way to commit to living intentionally; take Shane Claiborne, for instance, who founded The Simple Way community in Philadelphia. In the FAQ on The Simple Way website, Shane addresses the question, “Do you think everyone needs to live like you all?” Part of his response states, “[J]ust because we are called to be radical non-conformists doesn’t mean that we all end up doing the same thing. Nonconformity doesn’t mean uniformity”. This excites me, while simultaneously easing some anxiety that had weighed on me for some time.

I am at the point in my faith and life journey where my relationship with intentional living is one comprised of many, many small decisions. Sometimes these decisions have seemingly low stakes, but to me represent personal victories–take the university class, for instance, where for the first time I didn’t have a close friend to buddy up with, and had to form a group for a presentation. All my peers had easily created groups the first or second day of class, and I was beginning to feel incredibly anxious about the prospect of finding out I was the only one left who had not been welcomed into a group. Eventually I had to push aside the anxiety and embarrassment and get down to business, and I was able to form a new group made up of two other classmates who were also group-less. It’s a small thing–I am not claiming anything otherwise–but I think we don’t give ourselves enough credit for doing things that scare us, no matter how small they may seem. It can be scary to do things that go against the mainstream, like buying organic or being critical of government policy or grappling with challenging theological questions, but ultimately living with intent means doing things because they matter to you, whether or not their value is validated by an external force.