Humanistic psychology aims to stir people into living out (“actualizing”) their full humanity, being fully themselves. You hear its echoes even in ads for the armed forces: “Be all that you can be.” I want to explore that “be.” This is our business as Christians because in the New Testament, “salvation” isn’t just -- or even primarily -- about pardon. It’s about becoming “whole” – being fully yourself, being “all that you can be.” When Jesus had his funny miscommunicating dialogue with Nicodemus, as they talked past each other, Jesus said you must “be born anathon.” That word could mean several things, but the only other time it is used in the New Testament, it clearly means from top to bottom, all the way. You must be born all the way. “Be all that you can be.”
Humanistic psychology has its roots in existential psychology. Big names there: Rollo May and Erich Fromm. They hoped to stir people into living out their full humanity. They called that kind of living “being.” That’s because their thought is rooted in a slightly older set of writings, existential philosophy. Big names: Heidegger, Jaspers, Sartre, Camus – some of whom are comfortable with using the word “God” to describe the core of Reality; some, not. While you can’t tie down existentialism to a unified doctrine, existentialists are generally concerned with Being versus Nothingness. This takes us back to St. Thomas Aquinas who centuries earlier had described God as the Being of all beings – “the suchness of things,” Meister Eckhart called it.
The term “human being” suggests that there is a distinctive way we humans are (be). When a person is authentically himself or herself, that person is living out of that human being quality, which is rooted in Being itself. Paul Tillich was the greatest 20th Century existential theologian arguing that God is “the Ground of Being” and we find our authentic lives when we are rooted in God. But he was not alone by a long shot. Even his greatest theological adversary, Karl Barth, held that God is Being and that the evils and failures of creation are the work of “das Nachtige (the nothingness).” Nothingness is the nature of inauthentic living because inauthentic living is futile. It is action that comes to nothing.
Sometimes one can understand something better to consider its opposite. Being has two opposites – having and doing. Existential psychoanalyst Erich Fromm focused on the pathology of having instead of being. Fromm wrote in his book, To Have Or To Be that Western culture had gone off track, promising happiness through material possessions, but that the life of getting, spending, having, and clutching had failed to make us happy. It had drawn us away from authentic experience. As Wordsworth put over a century before, when this shift in culture was still new,
“Getting and spending we lay waste our powers.
Little we see in nature that is ours.”
It’s like Citizen Kane dying with the word “Rosebud,” the name of his boyhood sled, on his lips He had built an empire but died longing for the simple innocent humanity he had lost along the way. Fromm said our obsession with acquiring and retaining things had cut us off from our real selves, cut us off like Citizen Kane, from our humanity, reduced us to jumping through economic hoops. It does not make us happy because in the end it is futile. It leads to nothing. That’s why it is not “being.” And living that way is not the life of human beings.
But Fromm said there is another way. It is possible to live deeply and happily
through participation in the whole dance of humanity. He called that experience “being” and said we develop the capacity for being -- the capacity for life -- through letting go of possessions in order to connect with each other.
It isn’t that greed and stinginess are morally wrong. It isn’t that anxiety about having what we want or even need is neurotic or even unreasonable. It’s that our attachment to “having” and the things we “have” cuts us off from each other, from the dance of life, and even from our deep selves. In Thomas Dumm’s recent book, Loneliness As A Way Of Life, he devotes one chapter to an interpretation of The Death of a Salesman. He describes Willy Loman as lonely, alienated -- cut off from himself -- trapped in the ceaseless struggle to acquire, to succeed by amassing possessions, to have, have, have – because the alternative to having is to be had. We trust owning things to insure our well-being and our freedom. We want to be people “of independent means.” Dumm’s point (and perhaps Arthur Miller’s) is that this is an empty life. Willy finally paid off his house, but the day he did he died, and the house was empty of himself. Our lives, our bodies, our hearts become empty. We have given ourselves away to nothing instead of Being, which is what Thomas Aquinas called God.
All true, but Fromm’s and Dumm’s focus on the existential suffocation of attachment to material things is the tip of an iceberg. It is our culture’s most pronounced way of acting out a deeper problem, and more pervasive form of “having” instead of “being.” Gabriel Marcel was one of the major voices of Roman Catholic Nouveau Teologie, in the 1940s and 1950s. In his book, Being And Having, Marcel says the problem isn’t just material possessions. It’s how we relate to everything. It’s treating the world, even our own bodies and ideas,
as something we can watch, dominate, possess, manipulate.
That’s what Gabriel Marcel means by “having.” We can have our families as well as having our homes. We can possess a reputation and use it as an asset to get more power or whatever other thing we want to have. So the vegan yoga-practicing purist in patched jeans can be just as caught up in having his spirituality as the investor is in having his mutual fund. “Having” is about control and credentials.
We acquire in order to invest our acquisition in order to acquire more. J. Paul Getty was, in his day, the richest man in the world. Near the end of Getty’s life, a journalist asked him how much more money he needed. “How much is enough?” the journalist asked, and Getty answered, “A little more. A little more.” He would live and die in pursuit of “a little more” – always investing rather than enjoying. Willy Loman is Willy Loman no matter how large or small the numbers that measure his assets may be, and no matter whether the assets are wealth, power, fame, popularity, or any abstract value.
The problem with “having,” according to Marcel, is that we stand back one step removed from everything, using it instead of celebrating it. The opposite of “having” is what Fromm and Marcel call “being.” It’s the real life that comes from participation, from joining the dance. It happens when we give ourselves away to something or someone larger. Marcel of course understood being as derived from Being. It’s a God thing.
Now let me clarify the significance of the issue of having possessions in light of the larger issue of having as a way of relating to life in general. In our culture, as Fromm rightly says, having possessions is the culturally prescribed way of seeking well-being. That makes having possessions the key. How we relate to possessions shapes, for good or for ill, how we relate to each other, to our environment and experiences, even how we relate to ourselves. So placing Fromm’s issue in the context of Marcel’s larger issue does not downgrade the significance of the problem Fromm identifies or the magnitude of the opportunity for genuine joy that Fromm offers us. Quite the opposite, Marcel magnifies Fromm.
What Fromm says about possessions and happiness is obvious to anyone. But recently there has been a whole movement called happynomics to study the relationship between wealth and happiness. Again the results are no-brainers. If people are in truly dire straits, homeless, without the basic necessities for survival, they tend to be unhappy. If they acquire the basics for security, they are considerably happier. But after that, added possessions do not produce added happiness, sometimes the opposite. We all see this. We know it. What interests me is the reactivity of some economists. It is as if happynomics was a frontal assault on their prime article of faith – human beings pursue happiness through financial self-interest. Adam Smith said it. Karl Marx believed it. So it must be true. We do in fact live by that truth, but that’s the problem – it isn’t working. Fromm and Marcel invite us to step off the economic hamster wheel to stroll through real life meeting real people in a real way – being. Someone else said that awhile back – he even did it -- Jesus.
The fundamental issue here is relating to reality instead of exploiting it. In fact reality is highly resistant to exploitation, which is why our attempts to exploit it do not ultimately succeed. What’s more, the elements of reality that can be extracted through exploitation do not satisfy. It is as if we are missing a particular nutrient so we keep eating more and more food to satisfy that need but the food we eat does not contain the nutrient we crave. The addiction, compulsion, violence, anxiety, and despair we see around us and all to often experience ourselves arise from this basic error in how we live.
The other opposite to “being” is “doing.” But just as “having” is a bit tricky because it is a way of relating rather than the simple act of possessing something, “doing” is tricky too and is often misunderstood. It is something subtler than activity.
The idea that “doing” is problematic goes back at least to 19th Century German sociologist Max Weber’s critique of Protestantism and Capitalism as objectifying people, making them into tools of production instead of unique persons valuable in their own right. But the real deconstruction of “doing” came from Joseph Pieper, a German Catholic philosopher who, alongside Hannah Arendt, provided the definitive cultural explanation for what went wrong in Germany leading to the Nazi madness. His book was Leisure: The Basis Of Culture. Pieper argued that utilitarianism had reduced people to cogs in a machine, dehumanized them, made them means to an end in contravention of Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant’s fundamental principle: never treat a rational agent (a person) as a means to an end but always as an end unto himself or herself. Utilitarianism made us means of production. In the utilitarian model, a person who is not a good means to an end is worthless. That leads to horrific treatment of some people and anxiety for us all.
“Utilitarianism” here is not precisely the same thing that was meant by English Utilitarian thinkers like John Stuart Mill who wanted to measure ethics by the mathematical standard of the greatest good for the greatest number. It is more broadly the idea that value lies in utility. People are valuable for what they do for the larger project – the state, the market, the church, whoever is doing the evaluating. So people set out to validate themselves, to earn their right to occupy space on this earth, by doing something worthwhile.
I was once accosted by a homeless crazy man on a New York City street. He learned I was a seminarian and demanded that I justify my right to be part of society when I didn’t actually produce anything. At the end of the day I had manufactured no widgets to be used in some product. Feeling sheepish about my own worthlessness, I admitted I had doubts about whether I was any good to anyone. But it turned out he was testing me and I had failed big time. He called me a fascist and said it was people like me who put people like him in the gas ovens in Germany. Pretty devastating – because I knew he was right. I had succumbed to the prevailing utilitarianism of our culture, which dehumanizes us all, puts us through our paces for the good of the machine, and is ready to isolate if it cannot eliminate the non-producers. Think Ayn Rand and her scary disciples.
Problematic “doing” is the project of using activity to validate ourselves. Henry Nouwen famously said that in our frenetic activism we are at risk of devolving into “human doings” instead of “human beings.” We feel that we must do something to earn our right to be here. Insecurity about our own worth drives us to constant striving and the striving has a tone of desperation about it.
But I believe Nouwen is sometimes misread as equating inaction with spiritual virtue and action as a fall from grace. I don’t think that is what he was saying. His point about the problem with frenetic striving is balanced by Parker Palmer’s book, The Active Life: A Spirituality Of Work. Creativity, and Caring. “Being” is engaged with reality. It participates. An isolated quietude is as cut off from reality as a mindless busy-ness. The problem of “doing” is not activity per se, but the drivenness of self-validation.
Being is a mix of action and inaction. It is living and moving, breathing and praying, watching and waiting. Being is not simple. It is rich, complex, and varied. Being is still and knows that God is God. Being goes on journeys and adventures. It does all these things and more, does them gracefully and graciously because it is buoyed by grace. Being is of God, the God “in whom we live and move and have our being.” Acts 17:28.
Can we then say something simple and direct about how to practice the art of being? This is by no means a comprehensive prescription. It is just a few pointers for how to start:
1. Hold all possessions as steward, treating what you have as something you look forward to giving away, giving to other people, giving back to God – which is the same thing – possessions as opportunities for giving, not clutching.
2. Act in service and friendship – doing something because it is kind or generous, not because it floats your boat or because you will get credit for it.
3. Pray. Pray in a way that entrusts your own well-being and the well-being of others to God. Be still and notice that reality is miraculously present investing your hope in the source of reality.
When we give things away, it set us free from the bonds of having. When we genuinely serve others it sets us free from the drivenness of doing for our own validation. When we pray, we sink into the grace of being as we remember and acknowledge the ground on which we stand, what Karl Rahner called “the whence and the whither” of everything.