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Appearing, Having, Being

3 min

Most of us live inside cultures that mistake appearing and having for being, which is the root of a lot of misery.

If I "am" loved, secure, grounded, confident, worthy, things become easier. Less effort is required, and there is less tension in the process, perhaps because the stakes don't feel so high. My being loved, secure, grounded, confident, worthy is not dependent on what I have or what I do. It is a given, so outcomes become less important.

Conversely, if my being loved, secure, etc. is dependent on me having something specific, then there is a lot to lose if I don't get the thing I want. These high stakes can create strong tunnel vision and an intensity of focus. This can cause us to miss innumerable opportunities to "be" the way we wish to because we are focused on having something specific (and often times scarce).

I've been contemplating this in the context of status recently. People can appear high status, have things that are high status, and also "be" in ways that are high status. [1]




Generally speaking, people are consciously oriented towards appearing or having high status. They want others to look up to them, they want to have nice things.

My sense though, is that what people actually want is to "be" in ways that can come with high status.

This is why we hear about the cliche of the person getting everything they wanted and being miserable.

It seems that a better life strategy is to focus on the desires underlying the things we think we want, and notice that there are actually many more ways to realize these desires than we are generally aware of.

Next time you notice yourself feeling envy for something someone else has, or feeling upset about not having something you want, slow down and inquire into what the underlying desires are (i.e. what are the feeling states you imagine having this thing will evoke).

For example, I was recently browsing Airbnb. I often feel desire when I do this. "Oh man, I wish I had enough disposable income to drop X dollars on a week or two in this gorgeous home."

The underlying desires here for me are spaciousness and beauty. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that I actually have a sufficient amount of spaciousness and beauty around me to feel what I imagine that house would make me feel. Further, when I think about who does have the money to stay in that place, it seems very unlikely that they are somehow totally blissed out and have "finally arrived". It is far more likely they are feeling envious about their slightly richer/better looking/more connected friend. And if they aren't, and they are wise enough to be contented with what they have, it is not sufficiently better to justify me discounting my current happiness for the hypothetical possibility of being in their shoes.

A common concern that arises for people here is that if they stopped wanting things they don't have, they would become stagnant, complacent, or mediocre. In theory this makes sense, we experience the wanting of something else as a creative tension that propels us towards it. Also, there is ample evidence that wanting something really badly often works. There are plenty of people who got desirable things by striving for them with a lot of intensity.

My argument is that we can have everything we actually need to be how we want to be, without the subjective experience of struggle (note I say this because I'm not saying it doesn't involve work or effort, it's just that the work and effort we do actually feels enjoyable).

It is a bit counter-intuitive, so you're better off seeing it for yourself. My experience is that people have innate impulses to expand, learn, and create, and that these do not go away when we stop thinking about all the things we wish we had.

A key takeaway is that there are much more reliable pathways to being than to having. Especially, or primarily, at the somatic/nervous system level. I can work on cultivating a calm, coherent, relationally open and engaged nervous system, without having very much.

Further, if I can become this way, then the pathways to having specific things become both easier and more varied. This enables me to experience my own unfolding more like a cooperative game where the point is to keep playing, rather than a competitive, zero-sum game where the point is to win.



[1] I first came across the distinction of 'having' and 'being' in John Vervaeke's Awakening from the Meaning Crisis series. He references Erich Fromm's book To Have or To Be. More recently I heard Peter Limberg quote Guy Debord saying "...the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing", which was an inspiration for this essay.

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