To Have or to Be? Remembering what truly matters during the year 2020

By Luke Valentine

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, many people around the world have grappled with the sudden rise in restrictions imposed upon society. As such, following the general uncertainty about life in the aftermath, we as individuals and as a species must ask the two following questions

  1. ‘What does it mean to be [human]?’,

And

2. ‘What should matter to being [human]?’

The two questions are certainly interrelated, as it is only thinking through the first question that we can begin to tackle the second. I am sure that many of us were prompted numerous times in the wake of such global uncertainty to question what truly mattered. I know I was. I struggled to understand the situation that was thrust upon the world out of the blue, in my capacity as a human being and as a student of philosophy.

We need only look to the various news platforms and social media to see just how disorientated people from all over the world must have felt when national lockdowns on a global scale were instituted in lieu of the rising Covid-19 pandemic. The world came to a sudden standstill – shops, restaurants, pubs, cinemas, theatres, and other non-essential services were asked to close by governments everywhere. Faced with the closure of commercial stores and entertainment outlets, many have scrambled in confusion to fill the void left behind by the lack of shopping and social events.  People were asked to stay at home. Those who were unable to make it home to their families in time before the lockdowns began were forced by circumstance to isolate apart from loved ones, and in some cases, even alone. One can only imagine the emotional turmoil that must have caused them. With people dying in the solitude of hospital wards without their family members, it truly was a tragic time. And we are still not out in the clear yet.

Despite that we have, on the other hand, people who resisted the restrictions by taking to the streets. News outlets around the world have also shed the light on the many protests in light of ‘stay-home’ orders. Some took to the streets in active protests, with refrains such as ‘Give me liberty or give me death. Others ignored the restrictions all together and began flouting the rules by going to beaches or carrying on with life as if nothing had changed.

My secondary interest here is thus mainly concerned with the specific question as to what sort of psychological disposition could have motivated such people to do what they did. This ties into the more general abstract questions raised at the start of this article – the question of what it means to be human, and of our existential relation to the world as well as each other.

The analyses made in this work are predicated mainly upon the concepts found in the book, ‘To Have or to Be?’, by Erich Fromm. Two modes of our characterological disposition towards the world are posited here by Fromm, the mode of ‘Having’ and the mode of ‘Being’. It is from the analysis of these two modes that I wish to understand what might have contributed to the disorientation experienced during the lockdown, and in the more extreme cases, the active rebellion against the rules put in place by the legal institutions. Thus, let us begin examining…our lives.

The mode of Having (to Have)

In Fromm’s view, the mode of Having reached its epoch as a consequence of recent historical events – peaking since the industrial age which saw the exponential rise of capitalism and consumerism. That is not to say that people before the industrial age did not seek to possess or control things out there in the world. Fromm argues, however, that it was a limited form of control with the means to unconstrained desires and consumption being mostly confined to the higher echelons of society.

Fromm argues that human beings are predisposed towards the mode of Having due to the ‘biological urge for survival’, or in other words, to ‘feel alive’. Thus, under such an orientation of the Self towards the world, everything becomes related to it in a proprietorial manner, which is to say that the relational stance between the Self and everything else becomes a matter of ‘I have’ or ‘I do not have’. As pointed out by Lankshear [1], the mode of Having manifests itself through ‘possessive individualism’.

For Fromm, this ‘to Have’ or ‘I need to have’ relation with the world underpins and fuels our most fundamental property – the Ego. The Ego, which is the basis that forms our sense of identity, is thus related to as a commodity under a ‘to Have’ mindset. It expresses itself through statements like, ‘having this makes me feel good’, or ‘I am happy because I have this/that’. Yet such feelings of gratification, pleasure, or joy are only ephemeral and short-lived. It lacks an experiential richness as objects, people, and events out there in the world are only for our immediate consumption before we move on to the next thing that catches our interests. As Lankshear notes of Fromm’s mode of Having, it merely seeks to possess objects of the Self’s desire – the utilisation of objects becomes secondary. In the case of knowledge, under the mode of Having, it is akin to that of a hoarder’s behaviour towards physical objects – there is zero application of what is gained. You do not ‘learn’, but merely acquire information. There is no relation between knowledge that is gained and an understanding of its contents. It just remains information.

As for physical objects or people, the examples are more obvious. Fromm’s analogy of car owners and their act of constantly changing cars highlights the superficiality of experience in the mode of Having. A car, though deemed as a necessity by many, is primarily a symbol of status. Its function is secondary. The car, as Fromm argues, becomes an extension of the Self’s Ego. A projection of oneself in material objects, which in return, validates the Self. Thus, from having no car to acquiring a car, the Self adds something extra to the Ego. Yet this would not and does not satiate the Ego for it desires to ascend even higher in its ‘glorification’. An even more relatable example relevant to our current times is the ownership of mobile phones. The myriad functions of a mobile phone has become a vital and essential component to our way of life. Although I am not a tech whiz, I am prepared to acknowledge that whilst the first iPhone would not perform as well as the iPhone SE, the perceptible difference in performance between the iPhone 11 and iPhone SE is relatively small. Despite that, those who inhabit the mode of Having more than Being would find themselves constantly striving to acquire the latest iPhones,  or anything else that they believe will bring them ‘fulfilment’ or ‘happiness’.

Fromm’s characterisation of ownership in the mode of Having might be overly generalised and scathing (Fromm admits this himself), for not everyone who wants things necessarily depend on the acquisition of external goods for happiness. But I also acknowledge the necessity of such a characterisation. It is necessary as it highlights the experiential and psychological orientation of those who inhabit the mode of Having. That is not to say that the Having mode itself is undesirable or a mode of our existential experience which we should completely suppress. What I mean to say is that the structural mode of ‘to Have’ has the tendency to draw us away from truly experiencing Life, others, and ourselves genuinely. Similarly, as Lankshear is quick to elaborate, Fromm is not saying that as humans we do not need to ‘have’. The conception of the mode of Having here focuses not on existential but predominately characterological characteristics. Yet, in today’s context, Fromm wants us to see that existential having (the need for the basic necessities) is now conflated with and predicated upon characterological having – the desire to consume, possess, and retain that which is not innate or necessary for living.

The mode of Being (to Be)

Now that we have discussed what it means ‘to Have’, let us explore the other mode of our experience with regards to life: To Be.

“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.” [2]

Now before going any further ahead, I think I ought to clarify a potential objection that could be raised against the quote I have just used. One might say that we can describe experiences, such as telling others something along the lines of; ‘the kettle is hot, and it burnt me when I touched it.’ But that objection rests upon a misunderstanding of describability. In the ‘to Have’ mode, we relate to things, people, events, and phenomena proprietorially, and hence our descriptions of them logically go on to use such terms. Experiences can be described linguistically, but the subjective experience of experiences cannot be conveyed. What Fromm is saying here is that the human experience, what it means to be a human qua yourself, is not something that another human qua themselves can fully experience, and vice versa.

For example, I can write about and describe the processes I went through whilst authoring this article. I can tell you that it was at times arduous (due to procrastination), pleasurable, inspiring, and even transformative. The adjectives are familiar to everyone, I am sure, but they do not quite convey the first-person experience that I alone am privy to. That is the incommunicability and indescribability of my subjectivity, or in other words, my human experience. What I can do is to package my persona or experiences in such a way that it is intelligible when communicated to others. But if asked how it feels to be ‘me’ (to be Luke), I could never begin to describe it because it simply cannot be done. I just am. I can ascribe various attributes to myself – average in looks, mediocre, brooding etc, but they do not fully encapsulate my experience of who I am. I am not fixed nor describable in this manner. Luke is. That is all there is to it.

Lankshear explains this better than I am able to do by saying that in the mode of Being, we are what we ‘express and enact in our relationships with others and the world’. This means that who we are, what we are, and how we relate to others does not stem from a construction formed around our ego. Our identity becomes less of an object – even to ourselves it is something that we build up and ‘sell’ to others – it just is. When we ‘be’, we are situating the Self in the moment, without having to worry about how the Self is being perceived. That is to say, the individual is not worried about putting on a façade, a public persona that comes to possess a ‘separate identity’ which remains a part, yet also apart, from the individual. One who dares to ‘be’ will not require any externalities to prop up one’s sense of worth. The individual in the mode of Being acts and lives in such a way that they cannot be anything else but themselves. It draws out authenticity from the individual as the Self, its awareness of itself, and its interaction with the world are aligned. Being is content to just be, as Lankshear points out, ‘being is not a zero sum game’. It is not an ‘either/or’ situation. Fromm argues that an individual in the mode of Being as opposed to Having is identified not by what they possess but rather what they give out.

“To ‘be’ requires giving up one’s egocentricity and selfishness, or in words often used by the mystics, by making oneself ‘empty’ and ‘poor’.” [3]

One learns to simply exist and live in the moment. Treating others as one would treat oneself. Being secure in who one is, it is from this sense of self-security that one presents oneself authentically to the world.  As individuals, apart from needing the basic stuff, we do not really need much else to be individuals as well as to live a rich meaningful life. It is in having less that we possess more or are fuller in life, so to speak. Living in the mode of Being is thus being self-aware and authentic. I am not alienated from my experience of ‘experiences’ when I ‘am’, when I am content in simply ‘being’. In contrast with Having, where I am validated by my activities, in Being I validate my activities because they express me.

If I am to reformulate Fromm’s conception of ‘Having/Being’, it would be as such:

  • In Having, I am constituted by that which I have. I am nothing more than what I possess. My sense of self depends primarily on the continuous consuming and/or possessing of things and people that I believe will increase my value. I do not experience the process of something but merely the result of it, and even then, as something alienated from me.

E.g. I do not experience nor particularly cherish the time I spent with a group of people, but merely the sense of value derived from being seen with them (being seen as cool or popular). Yet, that sense of self is seen as ‘something’ out there, a construct of who I think and believe I am. Not who I really am. I am a stranger unto myself. 

  • In Being, I am what I make myself to be from within. I define myself and relate that sense of self with the world without needing any externalities to define me.

E.g. I do not spend time with a group of people for any sense of self-valuation or gain. The external end consequences of being seen with the group I spend time together with is of no concern to me. I spend time with them because I CHOOSE to do so, and I savour the moments I am with them. I value my time with them not because I think they give me value, but merely for the fact that I AM with them.

Life post Covid-19

Thus, I believe that in the aftermath of the Coronavirus pandemic, we cannot return to the consumerist culture that defined most societies in the world. What use are our possessions when danger strikes? What sort of comfort do entertainment outlets provide us when we lose our loved ones?

I must stress that my application of Fromm’s work in the analysis of societal behaviour is not meant to be comprehensive nor does it cover every factor that continues to contribute to the general disorientation experienced in lieu of the pandemic. Nor is it an attempt to make light of or berate the varying degrees of frustration and anxiety towards the trajectory our lives are heading on in the wake of this pandemic. I merely wish to raise the perennial question of ‘what truly matters in life?’, which I believe is ever more important to those of us who are living through such times.

Therefore, for those of us who live fairly comfortable lives and pine for life pre-Covid, let us pause and reflect. When we say that we are bored, that we miss shopping, going to clubs, partying, going on holidays etc, what are we really saying? I will agree that such activities do give us joy, no matter what mode of existence one inhabits – Having or Being. But should they be our priorities over that of, say, getting acquainted with our loved ones again? Just being there with them? Getting re-acquainted with people and ourselves? Learning to cultivate the ability to just sit and ‘be’ without feeling restless?

Those who wish for life to go back to the way it was or for restrictions to be lifted tend to go for refrains such as ‘We only live once!’ or ‘Life must go on’. But using that same logic, as you live only once, so do you die only once. The situation becomes worse when your egotistical push for your right to enjoy life endangers the lives of others. You live only once, so do others. The problem comes when you continue to live whilst those around you die because of your ‘enjoyment’ of life. Are we not being selfish if we put our own enjoyment over that of the general population’s survival? When we prioritise our enjoyment of things we relate to them in the mode of Having, as objects to be consumed. In Being, we are aware of our finitude, the universal ‘human-ness’ that connects us all. There are things and activities we can do without and still be able to enjoy life. As Stokes puts it succinctly –

            “Most of the time, I don’t need to think about the fact that your staying alive matters more than my ability to go [to] the pub.” [4]

Similarly, Life does not come to a halt, even under the restrictions put in place. Life goes on, but it goes on differently. One of the issues that Covid-19 has highlighted to us is that many of the things we take to be intrinsic features of modern living are surprisingly superfluous and unnecessary to our lives.

My argument here is that we thus need a revaluation of our lives and priorities. The inherent flaws in many of our societies and their systems have been exposed by Covid-19 and it would be foolish to wish for things to go back to how they were. Our sense of identity and orientation towards life should not, in my opinion, be thus predicated upon externalities. Life is not made enjoyable nor beautiful through the consumption of goods. Neither is our sense of being derived from social activities. The temporary injunction on our ability to consume commercial goods or enjoy social activities does not diminish our beinghood. We still are. Perhaps what I am trying to get at is that we do not need justification to just ‘be’ and to ‘be happy’. We need to learn that the good life is not built on the premise of possessing the latest goods nor from social entertainment – a life lesson the various ancient Greek philosophical schools of thought have always taught.

Yes, it is boring when we are locked down. We miss hanging out with friends and going shopping or just going to the pub. Yet when all these are taken from us, Life in its barest simplicity confronts us. It reminds us that there is so much more than seeking comfort in material goods or social activities. There is a sublime beauty in spending time just ‘being’. Remove the medium of social entertainment and find out what is it that connects you with your friends and loved ones.

What we as a community, both on a global and localised scale, should continue to ask is ‘what truly matters?’, and strive to improve not just in terms of material (i.e. technological) progression but also in terms of our being, or in Aristotle’s words, Eudaimonia. Therefore, should we Have more or Be more?

I will leave it to you, the reader, to decide. Thank you.


References:

[1] Lankshear, C. 2003 On Having and Being: The Humanism of Erich Fromm.

[2] Fromm, E. 2013. To Have Or To Be?, p.87

[3] Ibid. p.77

[4] Stokes, P. 2020 <https://theconversation.com/struggling-with-the-uncertainty-of-life-under-coronavirus-how-kierkegaards-philosophy-can-help-144671&gt;

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