Erich Fromm on: Two different modes of existence, being vs. having.



Having refers to things and things are fixed and describable. Being refers to experience, and human experience is in principle not describable. What is fully describable is our persona – the mask we each wear, the ego we present – for this persona is in itself a thing.


In contrast, the living human being is not a dead image and cannot be described like a thing. In fact, the living human being cannot be described at all. Indeed, much can be said about me, about my character, about my total orientation to life. This insightful knowledge can go very far in understanding and describing my own or another’s psychical structure. But the total me, my whole individuality, my suchness that is as unique as my fingerprints are, can never be fully understood. Only in the process of natural alive relatedness can the other and I overcome the barrier of separateness, inasmuch as we both participate in the dance of life.


The mode of being has at its prerequisite independence, freedom, and the presence of critical reason. Its fundamental characteristic is that of being active, not in the sense of outward activity, of busyness, but of inner activity, the productive use of our human powers. To be active means to give expression to one’s faculties, talents, to the wealth of human gifts with which  - though in varying degrees – every human being is endowed. It means to renew oneself, to grow, to flow out, to love, to transcend the prison of one’s isolated ego, to be interested, to “list”, to give. Only to the extent that we decrease the mode of having, that is of nonbeing   i.e., stop finding security and identity by clinging to what we have, by “sitting on it,” by holding onto our ego and our possessions – can the mode of being emerge. “To be” requires giving up one’s egocentricity and selfishness, or in words often used by the mystics, by making oneself “empty” and “poor”. But most often people find giving up their having orientation too difficult; any attempt to do so arouses their intense anxiety and feels like giving up all security, like being thrown into an ocean when one does not know how to swim. They do not know that when they have given up the crutch of property, they can begin to use their own proper forces and walk by themselves. What holds them back is the illusion that they could not walk by themselves, that they would collapse if they were not supported by the things they have.


In modern usage, activity is usually defined as a quality of behavior that brings about a visible effect by the expenditure of energy. Thus, for instance, farmers, who cultivate their lands are called active; so are the workers on assembly lines, sales people who persuade their customers to buy, investors to invest their own or others people’s money, physicians who treat their patients, clerks who sell postage stamps, bureaucrats who file papers. While some of these activities require more interest and concentration than others, this does not matter with regard to “activity”. Activity, by and large, is socially recognized purposeful behavior that results in corresponding socially useful change. Activity in the modern sense refers only to behavior, not to the person behind the behavior. It makes no difference whether are active because they are driven by external force, like a slave, or by internal compulsion, like a person driven by anxiety. It does not matter whether they are interested in their work, like a carpenter or creative writer, or a scientist or a gardener; or whether they have no inner relation to and satisfaction in what they are doing, like the worker on the assembly line or the postal clerk.


The modern sense of activity makes no distinction between activity and mere busyness. But there is a fundamental difference between the two that corresponds to the terms “alienated” or “ non-alienated” in respect to activities. In alienated activity I do not experience myself as the acting subject of my activity; rather I experience the outcome of my activity – and that is something “over there,” separated from me and standing above, and against me. In alienated activity I do no really act; I am acted upon by external or internal forces. I have become separated from the result of my activity.


In non-alienated activity, I experience myself as the subject of my activity. Non-alienated activity is a process of giving birth to something, of producing something and remaining related to what I produce. This also implies that my activity is a manifestation of my powers, that I and my activity are one. I call this non-alienated activity productive activity. Productive activity denotes the state of inner activity; it does not necessarily have a connection with the creation of a work of art, of science, or of something “useful.” Productiveness is a character orientation all human beings are capable of, to the extent that they are not emotionally crippled. Productive persons animate whatever the touch. They give birth to their own faculties and bring to life to other persons and things.


“Activity” and “passivity” can each have two entirely different meanings. Alienated activity, in the sense of mere busyness, is actually “passivity,” in the sense of productivity; while passivity, in terms of non busyness, may be non alienated activity. This is so difficult to understand today because most activities are alienated “passivity,” while productive passivity is rarely experienced.



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