Friday, February 28, 2014

Being and Doing

“To be is to do - Socrates

To do is to be - Sartre

Do Be Do Be Do - Sinatra”

I thought that this was an old undergraduate joke, but "Quote Investigator" tells me that this little trio has a long history.  It was first seen in Texas in 1968, on the warehouse wall of Bud's Tool Cribs, the first line put there by Bud himself, the second added by a salesman travelling through. No one quite knows who added the Sinatra reference. There, the first two lines were initially attributed to Lao Tzu and Dale Carnegie. Then a syndicated series called "Weekend Chuckles" gave the trio of quotations wide distribution. That's when things began to morph. The words would be written on a wall somewhere, slightly changed, or included in the Boston Globe or London Times, who reported seeing the words on a lavatory wall in Cambridge.  All kinds of philosophers were given credit for the thoughts--Kant, Hegel, Camus, Aristotle--credit which rarely accorded with their thought, until Socrates was added as the source of the first and then Sartre of the second, in Kurt Vonnegut's 1982 story, "Deadeye Dick."  Sinatra's lines, from "Strangers in the Night" has been a constant, added by someone unknown moving through Bud's warehouse in Richardson, Texas. Clearly we're fascinated by the relationship between being and doing.

An early meme?  Certainly, like Dawson's 1976 concept of the meme, it mutates and spreads.  What sent these words wandering through my mind as I sat on the stairs with Sheba purring in my lap(stairs are the only places she finds comfortable these days--something I'm very worried about), is that for me being and doing seem not to be connected--being leading to doing, or doing to being--but profoundly at odds with one another.  Still contemplating being and doing, still sitting on the stairs, some second-wave feminists showed up, particularly Sixties British thinker Juliet Mitchell,  one of the first feminists who identified doing and making and agency with masculinity, being and passivity with femininity.  For feminists, this binary way of thinking about gender is highly problematic, and following the spread of these ideas, women began moving into the "doing" parts of culture.

In 2014, we're a very "doing" culture.  This shows up most grotesquely in the fact that our cultural heroes are businessmen who put in long, long hours--even though doing so is ineffective when it isn't positively damaging.  It's our Protestant Work Ethic write large and prompting us to admire something that's basically dysfunctional.  It shows up on a smaller scale in our relationship with our smart phones.  Studies of young people whose lives are drenched and inundated with technology have shown that they lack empathy, something we learn and wire in our brains mostly when we are reading or day-dreaming--not when we're reading status updates. A "like" doesn't really require empathy.  On the other hand, empathy requires the time to daydream and reflect.

I've found myself trying to discover the difference between being and doing.  I don't think they're two separate boxes; I suspect they are a continuum. Trying to sort this out, I found only questions.  Why can preparing a class be "being" if you have enough time and find the work you're thinking about engaging, but the same task without enough time is distinctly a matter of "doing"?  Why is writing my blog a matter of "being," while writing comments at the end of a marked essay certainly a matter of "doing"?  Why is marking papers almost always "doing," whereas making dinner or a sock or a quilt is definitely "being"?  I began to get glimmers of answers. There is always a deadline for marking papers.  As well, if I'm going to judge someone else's thoughts, I'd better do this very carefully--something that works against the deadline. When you make a quilt or a meal, though, there are pleasant, rich, sensuous way-stations along the way:  the colours and geometry of cloth, the smell of fresh ingredients or of spices you've just added to your Moroccan chicken.  And there is pleasure and friendliness at the end, in the meal, in the beautiful drape of a quilt.  There's something distinctly utilitarian about "doing" and something inherently sensual and pleasurable about "being." Doing" involves getting something done (often to a deadline), whereas "being" emphasizes the pleasure of each step of the process.  

Oddly enough, Sheba's ill health has been a boon for the "being" part of my life, though I've had to do most of my thinking sitting on stairs with both arms around a little cat whose paws have stretched up on either side of my neck. I'm stiff but loved.  While I'm worried that we can't quite diagnose what's wrong and sick about the way she lurks on stair or won't curl up in my lap when I sit on the sofa, her behaviour has challenged my sense of what's really important. This is going to be another very "doing" weekend:  I have two batches of papers to mark and a novel to read.  But I'll know enough to take "being" breaks on the stairs with Sheba. 



  1. "Being" breaks with Sheba; you've got your priorities straight.

  2. I agree with you that being and doing are linked. And you seem to have found an inkling of the link. It has something to do with watching the clock and requirements and expectations. Dare we say that the two stretch into one when something is done with heart?

  3. Carla, you're right about doing something with heart. It's difficult, though, to do something with heart--no matter how important it is to you--while you watch the clock.