Mar 20, 2019
Doing or Being
Life has intruded in a big way this past week. The flurry of things that demanded attention ranged from the serious and sad to the shallow and profane. A friend who had no real warning went into a coma and died within a week. She did not have a chance to contemplate her death nor prepare for it in an immediate sense. She just died. I know, that we all know, it can happen that way. Death can come for us at any time in any way. We know it, but it is not real for us until we come face to face with it. This week, once again, death touched my life and a friend is gone.
One of the thoughts that keeps demanding my attention as I think about all of the might-have-beens of her life is the might-bes of mine. I have been re-examining my own choices and outlook regarding life. My worry is that in this culture, with my training, I can so easily get so focused on all the “doing” that I do. I compartmentalize my life into task-focused departments. I have a calendar on which I track the commitments I make and the things that I do. I constantly work to finish the things on my “to do” list. I boil with energy that needs to be expended productively. How have I been useful today? Did I make a difference? Did I advance towards satisfying or reaching a goal? Did that define a good day? I wonder if it was all to end for me suddenly, would my work be complete? Would I have done all the things I was supposed to do? And now, that my friend has died so unexpectedly, I am asking myself, what if it were me? Are there things I should tell my wife or my sons? Is there a bucket list that I need to finish in order to “go gentle” into that good night?
As I think of these things, I remember a conversation I had with another friend just last week. We talked about the difference between doing and being. My friend had been experiencing anxiety for which she could not identify the source. She felt compelled to always be doing something……. albeit, useful. So we talked about the challenge of learning how to just “be.” Life flows through us and around us. We touch people and things as we pass by each other. We live in a cluster of stimuli that is constantly changing. I have always believed that life is about the journey that we take, and how we take it, rather than about the destination.
I try to live my life as a journey, I want to try to just “be.” When people ask me what I am doing these days, I don’t really know what to answer. I refuse to be my job. I am not a teacher, or a therapist, or a consultant. I do not just do the things that those titles require. Those “shoes” do not define me. They do not make me what I am, that would be too limiting. I am “doing” what I want to do, whatever that is. I read, I take a walk, I try to stay in touch with my friends and share their lives. I love my wife and my children, my dog, and my friends. I laugh as much and as often as I can. I am irreverent, I tease, I care, I cry. Today, I cried out of the love of my friends who lost their sister. She was also my friend. I cried because grief hurts so much. When the road turns, and someone who has shared the journey with you goes down a different path, it hurts. But the journey continues. It will continue until your own path diverges away from everyone else’s and you, too, cross over to the next journey.
Until you get there, how will you live? Will you do things? Will your “to do” list be long and carefully monitored? Will you be able to check off all the things you put on the list?
Will your grass be cut? Will your laundry be done? Will your bills be paid? Will your commitments be honored? Will your life matter? How will you know? If your life is about doing, then these things matter. Keep track and measure them against your span of time. Work hard and accomplish much, shovel sand against the tide of time. Read the poem Ozymandias, by Shelly: “Look on my works, you mighty and despair!” for I am doing. Then ask yourself, “Is that all?”
When I was young, my parents and my teachers indoctrinated me to believe that there was a purpose for my being here. There were mountains I needed to climb, there were jobs I needed to do. I was taught that my value was in direct relation to my measurable accomplishments. At the end of the day (or at the end of my days) I would need to justify how I had spent my time here. I need to have my answers ready for St. Peter. Would I say that I had lived and loved? Or would I say I had built or done X? When I was young, I worked to please my parents and my teachers who believed in me and in my “capacity.” As I aged I accepted, albeit unconsciously, the mantra that I must bend my talents to accomplishments, that I must achieve, that I must serve. So, I became a history teacher. I taught lots of facts about the past. I taught anthropology and sociology, I taught “stuff.” I wonder now, did it matter? Did anyone “learn” from me? I taught dates and events that are endurable, did this change anyone’s life? Or was it the relationship that I developed with my students the real lesson? As Albert Schweitzer once said, “It is better to light a single candle, than to curse the darkness.” I wonder; have I lighted candles? Does it matter? And, if I matter, for what reason do I matter? Is it for what I have done or for how I have lived? Have I used my time wisely? Have I been, or have I merely done? Finding the balance between “doing” and “being” is a real challenge.
If you are lucky, and if your eyes are open, you will spend your time living instead of doing. You will hug a puppy, and kiss a baby, and watch a sunrise. You will hug your wife and make love to your husband with a presence and a joy that expresses your delight and your exuberance for life. Laugh, cry, absorb the moments you have, experience them with all your sensory capacity.
Yes, it is practical necessity that declares that you must “do” certain things in order to live and to have a quality of life that nourishes you. And yet, you must also remember to stop and smell the roses. You must delight in the cranky neighbors that you have, smell the coffee roasting in the morning and drink it as you watch the squirrels play in the grass. Be carefree, embrace the moment, good or bad. It is all food to digest. Life must be consumed, it must be savored, it must be experienced. Do not become so busy doing that you forget to savor, that you forget to consume that you forget to live. Living involves learning, growing, adapting, changing, being hungry, wanting, stretching, reaching, loving.
Be, don’t just do.