Updated: Oct 15
You have probably heard the Kurt Vonnegut quote, “I am a human being, not a human
doing.” Interestingly, it seems like a common question we ask people (at least in the Western world) is “what do you do?” We then go on to list all of our activities and roles in terms of “I am…” I am a life coach, a student, a dentist, a yoga instructor, a teacher, a nurse, etc. I am single, I am a wife, a husband, a parent, a widow, an orphan. We identify ourselves with what we do and the roles we take on.
But is that accurate? Are we actually the things we do, the activities we participate in, the roles we take on, even the emotions we experience? Surely these things help shape us and they provide insights for others to judge how similar or dissimilar we are.
And yet. I can’t help but wonder if we might find greater meaning to life if we detach our identity from our doings. Maybe we need to focus more on becoming a human being rather than a human doing.
At our very most basic level, we all are humans with the very same needs: safety, love, food and shelter. Yes, we are living a wide variety of experiences, yet despite our differences, our needs make us more alike than not.
An identity crisis…
I know a woman whose life revolves around music. Throughout her life she was talented vocalist and she played several instruments. She thrived on creating music and directing choirs. So much of her life and identity involved music. A few years ago, she had a stroke. Quite suddenly, she could no longer play any instrument. Speaking was incredibly difficult and slow for her; singing was not even an option. She was thrown into an identity crisis.
Her experience has caused me to wonder about what things I attach my identity to. What would throw me into an identity crisis? I would be devastated if I lost the use of my legs, or eyesight, or the ability to talk, mostly because I can’t imagine myself without being able to do some of my favorite things. These thought exercises are scary for me, because it seems like I would be losing some essence of myself if I could no longer do the things I enjoy doing. Who would I be if I couldn’t go hiking, or birding, or read or write poetry? Every time I think about this I realize (or re-realize) how much I tie my identity to things I can or can’t do. I associate my being with my doing.
Who am I?
So, this all begs the existential question—who am I? Is it possible that I just am? I am. It’s a complete sentence. I am. And I enjoy and work at a lot of different things.
I am and I enjoy backpacking, bird watching, reading, writing, spending time with friends and family.
I am and I spend some of my time working as a life coach; I’ve spent time working as a scientist, a student, a teacher.
I am and I have the role of wife, mother, sister, friend.
But if all of those activities and jobs and roles were taken away from me, I still am. So, those things do not define me. They shape me, for sure, but they are not my identity.
My stories are not me...
Like everyone else, I experience and participate in a wide variety of things. My interpretation of those experiences become my stories. They shape how I view myself and the world around me. And those stories affect how I define myself. But the stories are not me. My experiences are not me. At the simplest, most basic level, I am. And, you are.
This, I believe, is the Art of Being. My existence, my being, simply is.
The amazing thing is, I take all of my activities, all of my doings, and create stories to
determine my sense of self. But these stories are not Truth. I can reexamine them at any time and thus change my sense of self. And as such, I am open to the possibility of reinventing myself.
The only thing that remains constant is my being.
The only constant is my being. That’s it. Wonderfully simple and incredibly difficult to grasp. One of the starkest lessons I’m learning throughout this pandemic (link to coronavirus post), is that all my doing, all my activities, even all my thoughts--they do not define me. I’ve been trying to use this down time to contemplate the essence of being. And I’m not fully grasping it, but it feels interesting and important, somehow.
So, how do we practice just being? This is a question that has been around for a long, long, time. It seems like the most common answer to this question is some form of meditation; be it prayer, meditation, mindfulness, stillness. To simply be is incredibly difficult for our Western Civilization. It takes a lifetime of practice. Maybe learning to be is actually the purpose of our life—living in a way to finally accept that we are. It requires us to undo a lot of learning and to be more mindful with our words.
How do you think people would react if you introduced yourself by saying, "Hi. I am." And left it at that. What would it be like if you change your words just a little? Instead of saying, "I am...." try saying, "I enjoy..." or "One of my roles is..." or "My vocation is..."
Can the art of being heal our society?
Why is any of this important? I believe that if we focused more on the fact that we are, then a lot of the division and strife between people will begin to abate. We will begin to see that we are more alike, as human beings, than the differences we find as human doings. All the things we use to categorize each other, to help us identify friend or foe, muddies the water. If we can start with recognizing each other as a human being, then maybe, just maybe, we can start to hold each other up and give each other the respect that every individual deserves. Maybe experimenting with the concept of what the sentence “I am,” is one place to start.