Happy Independence Day!
On this Independence Day we invite you to read Alexander Lowen's insight from his 1980 book Fear of Life presaging our present-day frenzied and destructive consumer society, where "doing" precludes "being," and freedom is illusory:
In a recent book, Erich Fromm advances the hypothesis that being is reduced by having. He says, “Only to the extent that we decrease the mode of having, that is, nonbeing - i.e. stop finding security and identity by clinging to what we have, by ‘sitting on it,’ by holding on to our ego and our possessions - can the mode of being emerge.” According to Fromm, the two terms, being and having, represent two very different attitudes to life. The having mode is based on possessive relationships. The self is seen as the I that has a wife, a home, a car, a job, even a body. Since the I that has a body is the ego, the having mode is an egocentric position. This mode developed from and depends upon private property, power, and profit. Its focus is upon the individual rather than the community. The being mode, on the other hand, is based on loving, giving, and sharing relationships. In this mode the measure of the self is not in terms of what one owns but how much one gives or loves. In the being mode, the individual finds his identity through his responsibility to the community.
Fromm’s exposition of the differences between these two attitudes to life is insightful. The possessive mode not only reduces being, it restricts freedom. The things we own, own us. We are possessed by our possessions in the sense that we must think about them, worry about them, and take care of them. We are not free to walk away and leave them because for many of us they represent our identity, our security, and even our sanity. We would not hesitate to describe a person as crazy if he gave away a fortune just to be free. We think one can’t be free unless one has a fortune, so we spend our lives trying to make a fortune, and we discover too late that we sacrificed our freedom. We do not realize that freedom is worth more than a fortune, for without freedom one cannot be.
There is another antithesis besides the one just described that helps explain the human dilemma. It is between being and doing, an antithesis that also reflects the two sides of man’s nature, the body and the mind or ego.
On the ego level man expresses himself as a creator, on the body level he is the created. As a creator his focus is upon doing. As a creature created by God, his role is simply to be. All of God’s creatures except man just exist. Man is not content just to be; he has to do something, achieve something, create something. This ego drive to create produces culture, which is the glory of mankind; but it can also be the means of his destruction when, for example, it leads to the creation of nuclear weapons.
The antithesis between being and doing is recognized by our language. When we say, “Let it be,” for example, we mean, “Don’t do anything.” Doing something is not letting it be. Doing represents an attempt to change a situation, which is all right when the situation is an external one. However, when the situation is internal, that is, a state of being, trying to change this state by doing results in a reduction of one’s being. This can be explained by the fact that to act upon the self one part of the personality must turn against another part. The ego or the I turns against the body by using the will against the feelings of the body. In this process being is split and, therefore, reduced. Such an action may be necessary in the face of real danger, in which case it is not neurotic. It becomes a neurotic reaction when the maneuver persists beyond the point of danger. Neurotics are always trying to change themselves by using willpower, but this only serves to make them more neurotic. Emotional health can be gained only through self-awareness and self-acceptance. Struggling to change one’s being only enmeshes the person more deeply in the fate he is trying to avoid.
Does this mean that change is inconsistent with being? The answer depends upon which kind of change one is talking about. Change produced by the application of a force from without is the product of doing and affects being adversely. However, there is a process of change that takes place from within and requires no conscious effort. It is called growth, and it enhances being. It is not something one can do, and it is not, therefore, a function of the ego but of the body. Therapeutic change, which means a change in character, is similar to growth in that it is an inner process that cannot be accomplished by conscious effort. This is not to say that doing plays no role in the growth process. In acquiring a skill it is necessary to repeat certain actions consciously so that learning can occur, but the learning itself takes place on the unconscious level.
Excerpt from Lowen, Fear of Life (1980), 2012, p. 89-91.