Today I lay quietly on my bed engaged in diaphragmatic breathing, my wife stroking my head, in the moment, soothing, healing — us together, just being, a state being.

Tonight I make dinner, spaghetti squash and turkey meat balls topped with marinara sauce — doing. Delicious – the baked spaghetti squash caramelized and sweet as it plays off the savory meat and tangy tomato sauce. Me doing for myself and my partner. I was in a mode of doing.

Doing and being — these are interesting everyday modes of living with fascinating the similarities and differences! Both being and doing can be delicious, satisfying or frustrating.

Classically, analytically — thinkers have often separated being and doing. There is something to this. Being comes first. You have to be, in order to do. Being is a prerequisite to doing.

Being comes with being born and staying born. Doing follows. Being is preparatory, a kind of becoming, inward and often quiescent. Consider being in the womb. Doing is noisy, productive, outward, driven, active. Consider taking on a career. These crude distinctions make some sense, but reality is a bit more complex.

Take painting a room. We think of it as classic doing. If you want a room to look better, you don’t stand in it just being; you paint it. Painting is quintessential doing. It transforms a space. It makes history. Paint covers a multitude of previous trends, and it hides smudges and dirt around the light switches!

My wife and I worked on repainting the bathroom this morning. The creamy, thick paint rolled on sticky and wet. You could whiff the paint and hear the whir of the spinning roller as we pushed it up the wall.

But painting is the kind of doing where you can stand back when you are done and take a deep breath of satisfaction and suck in some fine, toxic volatile organic compounds, VOCS, that turn doing into a state of being — high!

So painting isn’t pure doing. Not at all. Painting can involve a creative state of being at the beginning of the project when one gets inspired and imagines possibilities, and it can include a reflective and appreciate state of being at the end when one admires the work. Painting isn’t all doing. We stand back, just being, satisfied!

As I left my wife finishing our paint job, we kissed on my way out, a kiss of solidarity. Doing this brought us into a state of mutualistic being. Interesting. Doing has the potential to create a community of being, of creating oneness.

But does being require doing to give it value or keep it in existence? We say things like “move or die,” as we validate the primacy of exercise and action. Even babies, who may not seem to be on a mission, kick and stretch and babble in preparation for walking, handling things, talking. What may appear to simply be existing is in fact very active and very purposive. Perhaps being always has a kind of doing built into it.

Maybe, but on the other hand, we can assert philosophically and spiritually that a baby or a very old person does not have to paint a bathroom or make dinner or even clean themselves or be at all productive to retain value. The new born infant in the arms and the very feeble grandma in the wheelchair are both treasured even when they can do little or nothing for themselves. The paralyzed person is yet of inestimable value. These limited ones are intrinsically valuable as being, not doing.

Indeed it is a horrible drift away from humanity and from civilization to only value human beings who are productive or valuable according to the norms of society. We’ve been there before with the ancients discarding unwanted babies to die of exposure or wild animals.

And as we know even today, in some parts of the world through sex-selective abortion, babies are terminated in pregnancy based upon the predicted sex of the infant. This is massively tragic thinking about being, making male being of more value than female being. And in many countries disabled people, especially in third world countries, are isolated from the experiences, school, work, social life. They remain hidden at home. I’ve seen this myself in Nicaragua. For us to do well as a planet we must retain the intrinsic sacredness and preciousness of all human life. Gender, disability, unattractiveness, low mental acuity must not become inferiority markers that entirely limit opportunities for normal productive life.

Yes, but while this is wonderfully noble, to aim at valuing all of humanity, to value nonproductive being, can we live this fancy talk out, practice it concerning our own beings? After a life of doing, can driven ones be content with less doing, with more just being? With resting? With not needing so much accomplishment? With less or even no painting, so to speak.

Perhaps not entirely. Most retired people are happiest when they have a project or are volunteering, or even working again. We are happiest when thinking of and doing something for someone else, not ourselves. We are happiest helping.

And yet the eventuality is that at some point our bodies run down and our opportunities to help become limited. Eventually age, poor health, weariness, changing mood, accidents — life stuff — interferes with productivity. And when this happens — and this can be very difficult for all of us — here is where we have to wisely shift our understandings of being and doing. Doing and being need new definitions for new seasons of life.

Today my wife and I played cards, talked, ate together, relaxed together, watched TV together. We produced nothing tangible during these moments of togetherness but just being together was special, meaningful, valuable.

Being present for and with someone in nonproductive leisure is an essential and precious element of wise living. There is a softness and quietness in these contented and grateful states of being. Such halcyon seas and safe harbors are sometimes missing from busy projects or social events.

It is remarkable and noteworthy that simply being who we are and where we are retains our meaningful place in the world. And there, in a quiet place, simply being kind, grateful and patient with ourselves and others sponsors being’s native sphere of influence. To be in a positive state of mind is to weld powerful influence. Being that is rooted in the nourishing energy of love emanates a power similar to doing. It changes the color of rooms.

Yet such elevated states of being don’t always come to us passively or easily. Sometimes we do great and terrible battle (note the “do” here) to achieve the quieter, more peaceful nodes of being. Often we must cast off bitterness, despair, negativity, jealousy, pride and more to win peace of mind.

My father at 91, lives in a small room with a few books a TV and a small bed. The other day he enthused, “I’m richer than Bill Gates!” The shock waves of that statement are still basing against the doors of the universe. My dad is very godly and quiet man and spends much time alone. And yet his gratitude emanates past the stars and provides a model of being for our whole family and all who encounter him.

To be, to do; to do, to be — life is a sequential, repeating, overlapping, alternating process But people like my father make it implicitly clear that noble states of being are possible in circumstances where there is little opportunity for the kind of doing and having that Fenelon says brings “courage to the senses.”

To help us all navigate the tidal nature of doing and being, perhaps a helpful question presents itself:

What is this season of life asking from you?

Perhaps it is more doing, perhaps it is more being. Perhaps it is practicing and increasing in a more contented and graceful form of being. Upping the value of the value of being may be challenging in western culture as there is some bias against giving being a commensurate value with doing. Among many go-getters simply being present, reflection, rest, meditation — even forms of robust tranquility such as prayer — are dispreferred. Perhaps it is a different mix or ratio of these that we need, different from what we have lived before.

Whatever the answer, stay realistic. Change is a process. Navigating the high seas and strong currents of being and doing is paint and brush work. Living out our doing and living out our being is like painting. Expect drips, runs and blotches and redos, and at least two coats of paint on every surface.

And expect success. Expect a kiss at the end. Expect to be kissed by reality. I see the universe as being on the side of the good. I see God as the guide to productive action and to precious, sweet, peaceful, grateful states of being. I see one of the great purposes of life as arriving at a more enlightened state of being characterized by love and kindness and gratitude and the celebration of all kinds of beauty. 

For me, God has provided the quintessential model for us. You work (do) and then you sit down and you rest (be) and you look at your work and out of a sweet, peaceful, calm satisfied state of being you say, “It’s good!”

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