Life - TO BE, OR TO HAVE
by VN Narayanan
In that ever delightful
cartoon strip Blondie, husband Dagwood wonders how humanity 'survived
LBP'. Asked what that meant, he says: "Life Before Pizza". The
past week, I have been strongly tempted to divide my own journalistic
life as BLP (Before Life Positive) and after. The 'LP' therein does not so much refer to
the magazine as to the very concept of looking at life in a positive way.
It also refers to the magazine inasmuch as the train of thought began with Life Positive's August cover story on the Dalai Lama. In a mere four page interview he has packed so much of the perennial wisdom about life and the secret of happy living that a whole fortnight of reading it again and again convinced me that life indeed has to be looked at only in LP or non-LP terms.
The perpetual radiator of karuna (compassion) and happiness, the Dalai Lama stresses the need to shed negative feelings and attitudes. He talks of India as a civilizational guru and how Indians badly need to 'Indianize' themselves, how Godliness is possible without a God and how the right-wrong, moral-amoral divide is artificial; and how things in the universe do not subject themselves to the human categorization of good and bad, right and wrong. Nature is; a plant, tree or a mountain just is.
Which brings me to a point of argument with the Dalai Lama. To drive out negative attitudes and sentiments, we need to define what is negative and as in some photographs of humans, the negative is way better than the positive. The power of positive thinking assumes thought in the first place, it being positive in the next and having power because of that. I am inclined to think that the power of thinking is invariably both positive and negative. In one of my future columns I intend writing on the power of negative thinking for humanity's own good.
The human dilemma is not the old Hamletian one of "to be or not to be" or of positive versus negative feelings and attitudes. When I decided to leave journalism two years ago—pre-empting the profession from leaving me—a kind elder gifted me an Erich Fromm classic To Have or To Be. He wrote under the title that I could answer that question. "You HAVE it in you to BE." The height of presumptuousness!
The book itself tries to pose the question as a modern dilemma, though our ancients—the Upanishads, the Buddha, Christ, Guru Nanak, Ramakrishna—have all answered it. The trouble is that they did not HAVE cars, cell phones, TV sets, computers and the like. It was easier to Be then, than now. Or so it appears.
On the face of it, it seems absurd to talk of 'having' versus 'being' as alternatives. To have is a normal function of our life. To live we need to be, and to enjoy life we need to have things. We live in a world where possession marks out levels of living: not only must we have, we need to have more and more. The very basis of being is having. If you have nothing, you are nothing.
Yet, the masters of yore and the scriptures disagree. Ishopanishad begins and develops the idea that the whole universe is the abode of the Lord and whatever one enjoys is what He has renounced. "So, don't run after earthly possessions." The Buddha preached the same idea. So did Jesus: "For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall save it. For what is man advantaged if he gained the whole world and lose himself, or cast away." Marx too equated luxury with poverty as a cardinal sin, setting the goal for humanity at 'being much', rather than 'having much'.
Far from being an absurdity, the distinction between having and being is the most crucial problem of life. Fromm finds in this distinction the civilizational difference between the West and the East. Two poems, one by the English poet Alfred Tennyson and the other by the famed Japanese haiku poet, Basho, are quoted by Fromm to explain the difference. The poems relate to the poets' reaction to a flower each sees while on a walk.
Here's what Tennyson says:
Flower in a crannied wall,
I pluck you out of
I hold you here, root
And all, in my hand
Little flower—but if
I could understand
What you are, root and
All, and all in all
I should know what
God and man is.
Basho's haiku is:
When I look carefully
I see the nazuna blooming
By the hedge.
A simple instance of looking at a flower… and it reveals a civilizational chasm! Tennyson reacts to the flower by wanting to have it. He "plucks (it) root and all" to speculate about the flower's nature from which he hopes to gain an insight into the nature of God and man. In the process, the flower itself is killed, solely as a result of his interest. Here we see the quintessence of Western science and modernism—seeking the truth by extinguishing life, the guinea-pig approach to everything.
All Basho does is to "look carefully" to "see" it. His interest in the flower is not casual. He wants to 'see' it, to be one with it and to let it live. Tennyson needed to have it to understand people and nature; Basho knows and understands.
The message of the Gita, the entire story of the Ramayana, the avatar of Krishna, the love of Radha, Meera and Andal for Him, the life of Guru Nanak and Ramakrishna, everything in our way of life (once, that is) explained and emphasized the difference between having and being. No longer so. Today the civilizational gap between the West and the East has been closed; the difference between having and being in our lives is between life focused on living beings and society based on things. The having-mode of existence has become universal and our understanding of life and nature is derived in terms of Tennyson's flower and not Basho's nazuna.
This is reflected in a subtle change of idiom. The focus on having is markedly visible in the growing use of nouns, an emphasis on things and materials, and not on verbs (activity). In ordinary conversations one could note this shift in emphasis when an activity expressible as a verb—I am, I love, I desire, I hate—is expressed in terms of 'having'. We no longer say my head aches; we say: "I have a headache". We do not say: "I cannot sleep"; we say: "I have insomnia." We say: "I have had a happy marriage" rather than "I am happily married". Activities and processes are now expressed as possessions. Even love is expressed as "I have great love for you"—it's my possession rather than a feeling towards you.
So, that's the difference. Having means wanting to own, to possess, to make things mine. In contrast is the being mode: being alive and being in authentic relatedness with society, nature and the whole world. The dilemma posed by Hamlet—"to be or not to be" is not an existential poser offering alternatives between life and death. If that were the aim, Hamlet would have said "to be or to not be". The dilemma is between being and not being. Great minds of the East, the Buddha, Sankara, Ramakrishna to Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama, never faced this dilemma.
One great western mind, which grasped the spirit of this difference, was the German poet-philosopher Goethe. The Faust is a dramatic description of the conflict between 'being' (represented by Dr Faust) and 'having' (the evil Mephistopheles). Coincidentally, a poem by Goethe on the same flower-situation. It runs:
I saw in the shade
A little flower stand
Bright life the stars
—like beautiful eyes
I wanted to pluck it
But it said sweetly
"Is it to wilt
That I must be broken?"
I took it out
With all its roots
Carried it to the garden
At the pretty house
And planted it again
In a quiet place
Now it ever spreads
And blossoms forth.
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