How to avoid psychological and environmental collapse, by Erich Fromm

Part II of Jana’s tales of “OMG I READ THE MOST TRANSFORMATIVE AND LIFE-CHALLENGING BOOKS WHILE ON OUR PARADISE VACATION.”

A book about surviving emotional and psychological faceplants, a novel about the Holocaust, a book about how to avoid psychological and ecological disaster, and a book about murder. The only book I didn’t get to on vacation was the book about the Holocaust. I still have cheery reading ahead!

Oh, Erich Fromm. You psychoanalytic wonder of awesomeness. I need to read more of your works, because this one has really stuck with me.

See my cozy clothes?! I LOVE READING IN AIR CONDITIONING.

Seriously, I really, really, really loved this book. More precisely, because I found some of the book a bit slow, I really, really, really loved the big idea of this book. In To Have or To Be?, Fromm looks at human living as occurring along one of two dimensions: that of having or that of being. Those who focus on “to have” see possessions as what gives their life meaning. They see their value in the “things” they acquire: jobs, money, children, knowledge, social network, etc. Almost anything and anyone can become an “object” of unhealthy having.

Those who focus on “to be,” by contrast, are focused on being active, but on an “inner activity, the productive use of our human powers.” (88) In the being mode, the focus is on authenticity, on human well-being, on the actual living of life. It doesn’t need or seek to acquire as a means of defining one’s value (Fromm certainly allows that a certain bit of having is necessary for well-being — shelter, clothes, food, etc.)

In short, the acquisitive, having-motivated life is focused on objects, while the authentic, being-motivated life is focused on persons and authentic living.

Fromm presents the dichotomy in a couple great questions:

  • Are we knowing or just obtaining knowledge?
  • Are we actively loving others, or just acquiring love?
  • Am I looking at this object as something that means something about my value as a person, or do I have it because it allows me to live and be my most authentic and compassionate self?

Holy shit, but this got me. And I’m not sure why this particular book and this particular way of talking about these ideas were so powerful! I’m certainly familiar with much of the Stoic philosophies, Buddhist ideologies, and mystical theologies that Fromm discusses. (PS? his focus on Meister Eckhart made me want to read much more of that whacked and brilliant Christian mystic.) For some reason, the way he writes and presents those modes of living lodged in my brain and I can’t stop looking at all aspects of my life through the lens of that distinction:

  1. My body. Am I working out and eating well in order to achieve the “perfect” body, or am I doing those activities because it’s the best, healthiest way I can live towards and through my body? Am I enjoying living in and through my body? Am I falsely and harmfully judging my worth based on the appearance of my body?
  2. My degree. Am I staying in this Masters program in order to get street cred and appear more intellectual and smarty-smart, or is it a way I am living out my values and innate love for learning and ideas?
  3. My work. I tend to be a workaholic. Not necessarily in my paying job (though I could see that changing), but in my free time. I feel like I need to produce something to have had a worthwhile day/week/weekend. While this tendency of mine hasn’t turned into anything too harmful (I don’t think?!), I am now trying to look at all my projects and ask “am I trying to create something that I think will make me more worthy as a person, or are these activities an expression of me living out who I am and living out my values?”

The one area I’m still thinking through is my relationships. Fromm talks a bit about love, but I’m not 100% how to articulate the distinction between having and being in relationships in my own life just yet. I think I’ll reread his The Art of Loving. I remember very much enjoying that book, and am excited to read it in conversation with the ideas in To Have or To Be?

The part that really got me, that was the “gut punch” of my reading, was Fromm’s discussion of the dangers of approaching ideas and knowledge in the having mode. I’ve been struggling to fight against epistemophilia (the love or idolization of knowledge) for years. I tend to think that if I collect enough info or enough ways of thinking that I’ll finally be smart! I’ll have all the right opinions! (more acquisition) I’ll be a better person because I’ll have all the right brain things! (Yes, this section did make me feel personally attacked, as the kids say.)

As I thought through Fromm’s words, I realized that thinking of opinions and knowledge as things to have, things that mean something meaningful about me, makes me dangerously resistant to modifying my beliefs when strong evidence demands the need for change. In the “having” mode, I will cling to outdated beliefs and modes of thinking simply because they are “mine,” because in considering and naming them “mine” I have determined that they make up who I am. However, if I focus on how I am being in my thinking and intellectual life, the way I am being towards ideas and beliefs, that changes everything. The pursuit becomes about improving the way I know rather than about the collection of bits of knowledge. (Or the collection of degrees that signal my knowledge. Again, ouch.)

While on a personal level this book was enlightening and motivating, on a broader level it was thoroughly depressing. Pretty much all the issues Fromm points out about the damages of consumerism and runaway capitalism are still exist, and are worse, today. Pretty much all the solutions he proposed have not been tried or vetted in any meaningful way. It was thoroughly discouraging to see Fromm correctly diagnose social and environmental ills and to remember that he is not talking about society in the near-2020s, but society 50 years ago. All that has changed is the need to start now is even more important, and the consequences of continuing not to act and not to change even more dire.

The wrong people are making the big decisions in the world.

Actually, that’s the one thing I would ask Fromm to add to the book if he were around to rerelease with updated material: a much longer, more in-depth discussion about the dangers of the “having” mode for the health and long-term well-being of the environment (and thus of humans). The biggest question is not about how I am living towards my own life and relationships. The biggest question is: Would I rather live acquisitively, and continue to take advantage of the opportunities capitalism has afforded me (instantaneous gratification, gratification of a wider range of desires, the awakening of new desires through new technologies) and in doing so destroy the environment and the potential for the flourishing of a variety of living beings, or would I rather live in a way that is more self-sacrificial and less gratifying but which allows a greater number of individuals to thrive in the here and now while ensuring the long-term survival of future human and non-human species?

I think and hope that I would answer “the latter” with all conviction and enthusiasm. I hope and pray many more of us will.

As Fromm points out, the kind of change necessary to stem the tide of environmental and social destruction is both systemic and psychological. But unfortunately, human nature needs to change significantly in a very short amount of time. I’m not optimistic that we will. But there is always hope. And how Fromm has highlighted the distinction between a “having” mode of living and the “being” mode of living has given me new insight into how I can live a mentally and physically healthier, happier, more environmentally sustainable life and make a better impact with my life than before. I’m discouraged, encouraged, grateful, and motivated.

I’m happy to have discovered and acquired To Have or To Be? for the way it has enabled me to live out more of my authentic inner way of being. And if that is not effusive and pretentious enough praise to get you to pick up a copy for yourselves, then I have failed you and Fromm. Let’s just not continue to fail the environment so catastrophically, ok?

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