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Philosophy

Human Being vs. Human Doing

Do you tend to act out of fear or out of love? It’s a question you may never choose to ask yourself because the answer feels too elusive (or too frightening to face).

You might say “It depends,” but let’s just pretend for a moment that we have to choose one or the other.

Acting out of fear is about control and safety.

When the Kickstarter project has seven days left and you begin spamming people to keep sharing your link, even when they already did, that’s fear — the fear of failure, the fear of being seen as a fraud, the fear of realizing that no one wants to contribute because you didn’t do a good job or create a good thing. We justify this as hard work and marketing and as just the way things are. But justifications are born from fear, too.

Acting out of love looks like acceptance, openness, listening, trust, and understanding. Love is unfiltered and unflinching attention. It has nothing to do with control. And it’s not about affectionate love — it’s merely the opposite of fear.

Sometimes the only way we can know is if we live with regret or with gratitude. Did we trust the process the entire time or did we react based on fear from both internal and external sources? Regret or shame is a byproduct of fear. Gratitude for an outcome is inspired by love. You aren’t worried about controlling any aspect of this event, you’re just grateful it happened because it helped you learn and become more aware.

The wise and world-renowned musician Harry Pickens touched on this in his CreativeMornings talk in Louisville in September 2017: “I recognized what is important for me in life, it is not necessarily the doing as much as the being; the doing emerges out of the being.”

When we enter a flow state in our work, we’re doing the work from a place of love. It’s unforced.

When we become obsessed with metrics, Instagram likes, trends in cryptocurrency, responding to trolls on Twitter (or even checking Twitter), we’re operating from fear. When we use words like “guarantee” we’re speaking the language of fear. We’re trying to control outcomes. We are doing, not being.

The hard thing about this is that doing feels good. Control creates a feeling of power and meaning. Daniel Gilbert, in his book Stumbling Upon Happiness, explains why control is pleasing to the brain:

“The surprisingly right answer is that people find it gratifying to exercise control—not just for the futures it buys them, but for the exercise itself.[…]

The fact is that human beings come into the world with a passion for control, they go out of the world the same way, and research suggests that if they lose their ability to control things at any point between their entrance and their exit, they become unhappy, helpless, hopeless, and depressed. And occasionally dead.”

We make being difficult. When I am photographing, I am not doing photography — I am being my best, creative self. I am in the zone and trusting the process. I let go of control and embrace the moment.

Sounds easy, but it ain’t. The habit of quieting the mind takes years of practice. The pre-rituals that allow me to focus on the task at hand were born from repeated failures of jumping into the unknown and thrashing for hours.

Timothy Gallway writes in The Inner Game of Tennis that tennis players who perform the best aren’t doing, they’re being; they’re not thinking, they’re merely present [emphasis mine]:

“When a tennis player is “in the zone,” he is not thinking about how, when or even where to hit the ball. He’s not trying to hit the ball, and after the shot he doesn’t think about how badly or how well he made contact. The ball seems to get hit through a process which doesn’t require thought. There may be an awareness of the sight, sound and feel of the ball, and even of the tactical situation, but the player just seems to know without thinking what to do.”

There seems to be a pattern here:

  • Fear versus Love
  • Control versus Trust
  • Ego versus Gratitude
  • Outcomes versus Process
  • Doing versus Being

I love Alain de Botton’s definition of love in Status Anxiety [emphasis mine]:

“Perhaps we can define love, at once in its familial, sexual and worldly forms, as a kind of respect, a sensitivity on the part of one person to another’s existence. To be shown love is to feel ourselves the object of concern: our presence is noted, our name is registered, our views are listened to, our failings are treated with indulgence and our needs are ministered to. And under such care, we flourish.”

I’m still wrestling with this. I’m asking myself how many of my day-to-day actions are simply me being in the moment versus me trying to control every outcome. Am I living in fear or am I operating from a place of love?

I just checked my phone while writing this and went on Instagram. What am I doing? I am not being present. I am attempting to hide from writing about something that I’m still struggling with.

I checked my DMs to see if someone I admire is willing to have lunch with me. I saw the message as “seen.” I immediately spun the narrative, this person doesn’t really like me … I sound desperate … I want to be seen and appreciated.

I am trying to control the “opportunities” in my life and the perception the world has of me vicariously through someone else’s validation. That’s fear. If I were operating from a place of love, it wouldn’t matter to me whether or not the lunch is happening, because if it is meant to happen, it will.

After all, aren’t we human beings, not human doings?


Special thanks to Ian Scott for inspiring this post through a conversation we had.

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— PAUL JUN