How You Define: Being Versus Doing


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How goes it for you in this time?

I’ve noticed that various characterizations are being offered to help us get a handle on it. “The Great Emptiness,” Or “The Long Silence.” Some days it seems we’ve been sent to a re-hab program for activists. Life’s pace and intensity have suddenly been dialed back, way back. “What are you doing today?” “Well, let’s see, I thought I might go for a run. And maybe read.”

I remember my Dad, when retired, would sometimes say toward a day’s end, “I haven’t really done a damn thing today.” He did not say it with pride. He, like many of us, measured his days and himself by what he had accomplished. That’s harder now. At least if you are not on the front lines of health-care or something else judged to be an essential service.

I’ve noticed my own need to have something I’ve done in the course of a day, something to report or find satisfaction in. “Biked X number of miles today,” I might record in a journal. Or I give Linda a rundown of the various bird species and other wildlife observed while kayaking that afternoon.

There’s a useful distinction made by spiritual directors between “being” and “doing.” Doing is our calendar of appointments and activities, our lists of tasks and projects for a day or a week, the things we can say, at the end of some period of time, that we have accomplished. Being is just that. Being here, now. Noticing our state of being, how it is with our spirit. Now, in the Great Silence or Long Emptiness, is not so great for those of us who prefer doing to being.

But there is an opportunity in it. As Father Steve Paulikas writes . . .

“The images of empty public spaces around the world are shocking outward signs that reflect the interior emptiness so many feel right now. Millions are being deprived of the chance to work, socialize and support one another in person. Physically isolated and emptied of our usual lives, we are being forced to face ourselves in a way that few alive today ever have before.

“Yet the void created by this crisis may be an unexpected gift. This emptiness presents to us a mystical and uncluttered view of life as we have been living it until a few weeks ago. Life will never be the same. Each day, it becomes more apparent that this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to consider a fundamental question about the spirit and morality of our way of living: Having emptied ourselves, what do we really want to fill our world with once it is time to rebuild?”

It is a time for reflection and re-calibration. But even that can become another thing on the to-do list, something we “should” accomplish during this time.

My friend Brad Bagshaw once related an anecdote that has stuck with me. He was on the elevator at his law firm with a younger partner who was juggling his coffee, appointment calendar, keys, phone, and brief-case and, all in all, looking pretty frazzled. In response to Brad’s casual, “How are you?” he answered, “Busy, I’m so busy. I’m incredibly busy. How about you? I’m sure you’re busy too.”

To which Brad replied, “No, not really.” His companion on the ride up was taken aback. It was one thing to not be “busy.” How can this be? And it was yet another to say so publicly, and with equanimity.

This suggests the shadow side of activism and busy-ness. We justify ourselves by our busyness. There’s a theological term for that. “Works righteousness.” Our works, our activity, makes us “righteous,” at least in our own eyes. “Look at all I’ve done for you, God.” There’s some reason to think God is not always as impressed with ourselves as we are. Too often, our activism becomes a way we assert our superiority to those we judge less productive or virtuous.

Another story that I remember was told by a young woman who spent a day volunteering at a homeless shelter. She had labored for hours making a really great pot of soup. At supper-time she set a steaming bowl of her soup before a crusty old guy, then waited. She wasn’t wholly aware of why she waited until the guy looked up at her and said, “Doing good’s a hustle too.” She realized she had been waiting to be thanked and complimented on the soup. His words hit her, she said, like the slap of a Zen master.

Opportunities to “do good” and be active still exist of course, but they are constrained. Maybe, with that young woman, we get to examine our motivations and the needs we are meeting.

So, it’s a challenging time. But Paulikas and others are right, there is an opportunity in it. I’m trying to take the opportunity to “do nothing,” at least some of the time and see who I am then.

Anthony B. Robinson
Anthony B. Robinson
Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.



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