To be or to have? That is the question

have-less.

The society we live in values acquisition – property, money, skills, knowledge – we should have more and more of everything. We rarely see modes of existence that value ‘being’. So, is it any surprise that  we see the acquisitive or ‘having’ mode of living as the norm? This so slanted towards the side of having, that is often really hard to understand just what is meant by ‘being’.

Erich Fromm is very good at explaining this in ‘To have or to be‘ , but I hope this simple example can bring these concepts to life, and perhaps provide a nudge towards some reflection.

Imagine being involved in a conversation – perhaps you meet someone famous, or well-respected in their field – or someone who can fix you up with a great job opportunity, someone you want to impress – someone you’d like to date maybe. Let’s say that the prospect of meeting this person makes you mildly anxious. Let’s say that you start to prepare for this potential meeting and conversation. You start to think of topics that might interest the other person. Sometimes you might think of a conversation starter – others might even map out the whole conversation in their minds – or at least, their own part in it – plotting out different ways the conversation might go and develop contingencies for all these eventualities.

Another way to bolster yourself is to think about what you have; your past successes, you charming / influential personality, your social position, your connections, your appearance, your snappy dress sense. You mentally go through a process of  balancing your worth, and based on this evaluation, you show-off your fancy feathers in the conversation. If you’re good at this, you will indeed impress a lot of people – though a lot will be due to your performance and the ability of other people to judge your authenticity. If you’re not good at it, you might even come across as wooden and a little uninteresting.

What would it be like if you chose not to prepare anything in advance? Instead of bolstering yourself up by thinking about your previous accomplishments that show how cool you are, what if you responded spontaneously? What about if you forgot about yourself, about your knowledge and schooling, and the social position you occupy?

When your own ego – you thinking about all that you have – isn’t standing between you and the other person involved in the conversation, suddenly you are more free to fully respond to the other person and their ideas. You are able to give voice to new ideas because you aren’t busy holding on to old ones. While people in the ‘having’ mode of existence rely on what they have, people in ‘being’ mode rely on the fact that they are – that they are alive to the moment and that something new will come if only they have the courage to let go of having and to respond. Indeed, “They come fully alive in the conversation, because they don’t stifle themselves by anxious concern with what they have” (Fromm, 1978, To Have and To Be, p.42).

Even better, imagine if your own aliveness was infectious and can help the other person transcend their own mode of existence from having into being? Conversation then stops being an exchange of commodities – information, status, knowledge – and becomes a dialogue where something new is created. The conversation becomes more of an enlivening a dance, rather than the drudgery of a military exercise.

I often approach public speaking this way now – less concerned with having and my own anxious concern to demonstrate my worth, but more focused on being and the co-creation of something new rather than broadcasting my supposedly superior knowledge. It really is a very freeing experience.

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