Contrary to the having mode we find lots of traces of the being-mode where we can enrich conversations with others who are different to us in an open manner, feel love with others instead of having love or falling in love with someone, enjoying critical learning and knowing about things, and conceiving understanding as a constant change instead of something that pertains solely to ones own self.
The Being-Mode refers to human experience, which is in principle not describable and always in a state of constant change and flowing flux. That is, a way of conceiving life in its fullness, authenticity and feeling of aliveness, when relating to the world and away from false appearances. In essence, a way of life that can be regarded as an ethics of the good life, for fullness within oneself and merely being.
To do so, we need to begin with our own selfs, our fears, and remnants of the having-mode: getting rid, above all, of ego-centric trends within our character – so infectious in todays’ society- and putting away the persona, the mask people see of us, and which they themselves wear to present themselves to the Others. In itself depriving ourselves from what we take as entitled to us, in the having mode, such as something that one owns, a thing, an identity, a word, a name. For the persona to disappear, or at least to reduce its effects, living beings cannot be described as a dead image -inert of any liveness or change, or becoming- nor a thing. In fact, making us understand ourselves as someone that cannot be described at all; to become indescribable in a state of constant change. The total me, my whole individuality, my suchness that is as unique as my fingerprints are, can never be fully understood, not even by empathy, for no two human beings are entirely alike.
If we understand the being mode as something changeable, never fixed and always ‘in the go’, being is active. This is not to be confused with busyness but rather the productive use of our human powers; to give expression to one’s faculties, talents, to the wealth of human gifts with which 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. So radiant can the imagination be of such an event, that not even a word can describe it overflowing any kind of dominion. Fromm describes this in an interesting manner:
‘The moment that I express what I experience exclusively in thought and words, the experience has gone: it has dried up, is dead, a mere thought. Hence being is indescribable in words and is communicable only sharing my experience.’
Activity in this sense, then requires us to rethink its definition. Its modern usage is condemned to be too restrictive and behaviouralist (and I would say consequentialist, maximalist and quantifiable) by merely highlighting its socially recognized purposeful behaviour resulting in useful utility. Its difference corresponds to the terms ‘alienated’ and ‘non-alienated’ activity. 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 as something ‘over there’, separated from me and standing above and against me. That is, I do not really act; I am acted upon by external or internal force. In fact this is what alienation means: something external to us (perhaps something we created) but that happens to control us and dominate us and make us feel unfree. In an active, that is, an unalienated mode of being I experience myself as the subject of my activity, constantly evolving, flowing, changing and in full control of it. Fromm calls this qualitative experience productive activity (read ‘Marx’s concept of Man’ from Fromm for more).
A clear example of this form of unalienated being can be the way one chews a chocolate bar. Feeling every bit of it melt in your mouth and savour it with pleasure, without counting the seconds, minutes, or feeling the sensation that a kiss might entail the moment you feel love towards someone, or the true words you attempted to utter to yourself, or to someone with affection. This gives a sense of control, self-fulfilment and emancipation carried out in a productive process with nothing being produced -nothing tangible but a romantic conception of pure and joyful creativity and self-actualization-. Instead, we enable ourselves to animate whatever we touch, and give birth to our own faculties and bring to life other persons and how we relate to things.
With this in mind, passivity is the complete opposite to activity. Passivity refers to productivity in the utilitarian sense and activity to enlivened experience of control and productive activity.
This forms of activity can take various shapes throughout history; from Aristoteles idea of the contemplative life, devoted to the search for truth, all the way running to Thomas Aquinas and his distinction between vita contemplativa (stillness and spiritual knowledge) and the vita activa (leading to well-being). Master Eckhart is another spiritual thinker who also attempts to understand activity as part of a wholesome when rooted in ethical and spiritual demands. However, one thinker who broke with the established dogma of the time was the forgotten Spinoza (a philosopher who is gaining popularity once again within new materialist thinking, Deleuzian thought and Italian philosophy). In a nutshell, Spinoza thought that activity was tied with reason intrinsic within the human nature of all to make us feel and experience ourselves better against the mental illness of the failure to live according to the requirements of human nature.
There are many other thinkers who talk about alienation but it will suffice to speak of one more: the young Marx and his critique of capitalism as alienation to the productive activity of human beings.
Marx’s view was that history did not determine man completely, but rather that it was man -real, living man- who acts, possesses and fights against her own alienation. It is by no means ‘History’ which uses man as a means to carry out its ends as if it were a person apart; rather History is nothing but the activity of man in pursuit of his ends. The creativity of man in its active mode enables it to self-actualize itself and live a better and good life, while surrounded by the pathos of capitalism.
Fromm is unfortunately very Eurocentric and of course he sends a message out to the people living under superfluous consumerist environments, but one must not forget that the totality of capitalism also brings excluded subjects into the picture, working in correlation with its own development in european countries. As such, Fromm forgot to mention people like feminist Virginia Wolf and her beautiful literature for the emancipation of women and resistance to break with certain gender norms, as well as Frantz Fanon’s ideas for a more healthy psyche of the blacks versus its colonial masters. These thinkers broke with the deep isolation and alienation of their lives against patriarchy and institutional colonialism and violent racism, and one should not exclude them, when talking about how a good life can be lived.
Two big figures:
The Being-Mode talks to truth, reality and dispatches false appearances. It is a form of ‘seeing’ that which lives in the unconscious, the place where we repress our experiences, hopes and dreams and our efforts to control our lives. It allows us to remove concealments and send them away, very far away and evaporate the desires of the ‘normal’, the vague and the condescending. This false cartography can then be replaced by the knowledge of reality -truth, which for Fromm exist-. This experience, while concealed in false appearances, can be painful and deserves a dose of violence. It always does, because one realises all of sudden things that can seem unbearable for many of us. In short, Being refers to the real, in contrast to the falsified, illusionary picture. This reflection is definitely true for many people, because without some level of repression, suicide rates would skyrocket and millions would suffer from depression (Traumas and mental illness are also part of this, whether or not this is something that has to do with capitalism deserves to be discussed but also questionable is whether truth is always better than illusion in these cases).
The will to give, share and to sacrifice is well-rooted in this mode of being, because it allows for venerable acts like solidarity, union and self-sacrifice. However, what is surprising is that this need could be so repressed as to make acts of selfishness the rule in industrial societies and acts of solidarity the exception. This hegemonic mode of living is both damaging in the long-term to society and becomes such a strong norm, that nobody who knows this truth wills to make of herself and others around her different to the established one. Thus we are left with a dominant capitalist norm where greed, selfishness and full-profit is hegemonic, and where nobody wants to become an outsider or indeed an outcast.