Having or Being?

From My Bookshelf – Day 59


The dream of being independent masters of our lives ended when we began awakening to the fact that we have all become cogs in the bureaucratic machine, with our thoughts, feelings, and tastes manipulated by government and industry and the mass communications that they control. 

We are a society of notoriously unhappy people: lonely, anxious, depressed, destructive, dependentpeople who are glad when we have killed the time we are trying so hard to save. 

The need for profound human change emerges not only as an ethical or religious demand, not only as a psychological demand arising from the pathogenic nature of our present social character, but also as a condition for the sheer survival of the human race. Right living is no longer only the fulfillment of an ethical or religious demand. For the first time in history the physical survival of the human race depends on a radical change of the human heart. 

Faith, in the having mode, is the possession of an answer for which one has no rational proof. It consists of formulations created by others, which one accepts because one submits to those others—usually a bureaucracy. It carries the feeling of certainty because of the real (or only imagined) power of the bureaucracy. It is the entry ticket to join a large group of people. It relieves one of the hard task of thinking for oneself and making decisions. Faith, in the having mode, gives certainty; it claims to pronounce ultimate, unshakable knowledge, which is believable because the power of those who promulgate and protect the faith seems unshakable. Indeed, who would not choose certainty, if all it requires is to surrender one’s independence? 

God, originally a symbol for the highest value that we can experience within us, becomes, in the having mode, an idol. In the prophetic concept, an idol is a thing that we ourselves make and project our own powers into, thus impoverishing ourselves. We then submit to our creation and by our submission are in touch with ourselves in an alienated form. While I can have the idol because it is a thing, by my submission to it, it, simultaneously, has me. Once He has become an idol, God’s alleged qualities have as little to do with my personal experience as alienated political doctrines do. The idol may be praised as Lord of Mercy, yet any cruelty may be committed in its name, just as the alienated faith in human solidarity may not even raise doubts about committing the most inhuman acts. Faith, in the having mode, is a crutch for those who want to be certain, those who want an answer to life without daring to search for it themselves.

In the having mode of existence what matters is not the various objects of having, but our whole human attitude. Everything and anything can become an object of craving: things we use in daily life, property, rituals, good deeds, knowledge, and thoughts. While they are not in themselves “bad,” they become bad; that is, when we hold onto them, when they become chains that interfere with our freedom, they block our self-realization. 

Having and consuming cause unhappiness and suffering. 

If I am what I have and if what I have is lost, who then am I? Nobody but a defeated, deflated, pathetic testimony to a wrong way of living. Because I can lose what I have, I am necessarily constantly worried that I shall lose what I have. I am afraid of thieves, of economic changes, of revolutions, of sickness, of death, and I am afraid of love, of freedom, of growth, of change, of the unknown. Thus I am continuously worried, suffering from a chronic hypochondriasis, with regard not only to loss of health but to any other loss of what I have; I become defensive, hard, suspicious, lonely, driven by the need to have more in order to be better protected.

Erich Fromm — To Have or To Be? (pp. 2-89)

I cannot cogitate too many authors who have changed my thinking more than Erich Fromm. His writing style takes some getting used to since his first seminal work was published in 1941 (Escape from Freedom). Psychotherapists in the 1940’s didn’t write quite the same as people write today; but once you’re familiar with his dense writing style, you’ll wrestle with his ideas for weeks at a time.

Several of his books deliberate living from the orientation of “having” versus “being.” Most of us were conditioned from our childhood to live from the orientation of having. The phrase he who dies with the most toys wins comes to mind. Our entire society is set up to function around the having mode. Typically, in order to make your name on any Who’s Who list of any community requires that you succeed at the having mode.

The having mode shows its ugly side in all aspects of life: learning, remembering, conversing, reading, exercising authority, knowledge, faith, loving, etc. The having mode creates versions of ourselves that none of us are proud of. In the having mode, we simply can’t get enough—ever. We must have more, and what we do have we quickly lose favor of. While we are in the having mode, our brains function quite like an addict in search of their next high.

In contrast, have you ever had a long conversation with someone who orients themselves in the being mode? It seems like you could talk to them for days. Their mind is nowhere else other than the conversation they’re having with you. They are completely saturated in their present moment. They aren’t worried about their possessions, their reputation, or their next meal. They simply know their life is being lived through them. They ooze peace and contentment. And the crazy thing is, it’s not an act. They truly are that content and joyful.

Honestly, the points Fromm makes between the having mode versus the being mode are too numerous for me to give it justice in one short blog. My main goal in even bringing it up today is simply for you to consider that there is a difference. You can orient yourself to having or you can orient yourself to being. The natural outcomes to either mode you choose are vastly—universally—different.

Choose wisely.

Have a blessed day.

Peace and Love,




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