Up on the farm for a few days this week, I had time to stare out the window and be with the land and sky. I began thinking about something a reader posted a few days ago in response to my line, “Who will we be when we are no longer who we are.” Her response was “perhaps we will just be rather than do.”
I thought about being and doing. What does it mean to BE human? If I remember my anthropology more or less accurately, the use of tools, and more to the point, the construction of tools, separates humans from primates. While primates use items they find as tools, a stick, for example, to dig grubs, they do not build tools. Humans build tools.
Early hunter/gatherers chipped flint for knives and spear tips; they made bags for gathering from animal skins or reeds; they formed and baked pottery. Humans have learned, and evolved, from doing; the history of civilizations comes from humans doing. The history of thought, on the other hand, comes from being – although the philosophers, and the mystics, still had to “do” the work of writing to tell us what they’d learned. Plato distinguished his “duality” of reality as existing between the world of “being” and becoming.” In order to “become” one must “do.”
I spend a lot of time being when I’m here on the farm. I gaze out the window across the tallgrass prairie. Nothing to see, really. Chin in hand, I lean against the desk, stare out the window. The only thing that moves are my eyes, following the swallows zigzagging across the ripe grass heads. Swallows eat insects, mid-flight, so I imagine that’s what they’re doing.
Yesterday, as I was hooking up the water to the camper, I saw a young bull snake about two foot long, lying stretched out in the grass beside a tree, its head raised and resting on a piece of bark. Sunlight polished black skin and picked up gold-brown shades that wrapped under its belly. It didn’t see me coming, but when I dropped the end of the hose, it whipped itself back into pleats, head up, wary. Perceiving no other threat, it slid up the trunk of the tree and disappeared.
I was sorry, then, to have disturbed it. It was cute, really, lying full length in the sun, its head tipped up as a sunbather might, except with no arms to cup under its chin. It was, quite simply, being a snake. Both in its resting and in its movement.
Where’s the balance between the stretched out black snake and this human who’s busy hooking up water? I suspect it comes by each of us finding the integration between the two verbs, “to be” and “to do” rather than eliminating one or the other.
I wonder if that’s also the balance point between Martha and Mary. At a moment in their story, Mary sits and listens to Jesus, absorbing what he teaches, and Martha scurries around preparing food for the people gathered. Jesus tells Martha that she’s worried about many things. And he reminds her one thing only is needed. Even while she is doing, she only needs to be. Be present. Right now. With what you’re doing rather than worrying and fussing that something more is needed.
Many of us are scurrying around these days, fussing about things that need doing. Or that others are or are not doing.
Nature once more gives the lesson: the swallows have to “be” present and conscious in their flight to catch insects, themselves in mid-flight. Watching swallows swoop and soar, circle and swoop, is a perfect example of integrating being and doing. Swallows have learned the balance. The young bull snake, balanced in its self of being, was able to react in the balance of doing.
When we are conscious of what we are doing, we are able to be present. Be still, the Hebrew scriptures say, and know I am God. In other words, while you are doing, be present to your essential self.
That is our constant lesson: to be present in what we are doing. For example, as you are reading and thinking right now, feel your breath and feel it expand your body and your consciousness. Feel how wide your essential self expands beyond the boundaries of your skin. Think of yourself as soaring, mid-flight in your life, in balance. Doing what you need to do in this particular moment. You might even find yourself smiling.
“There is need of only one thing.” And the overriding and necessary thing in the world today is balance. And when you are in balance, your spirit soars and the sun rests lightly on your polished skin.