To Be or To Do, That is the Question
As I stood next to the bubbling creek in the warm summer sun, I let my mind drift into its standard existential meandering. The topics of these mental excursions often drifted toward my purpose and how I could get closer to fulfilling what I was made to do. In my opinion, with only one life to live, I’m quite drawn to the idea of living it well. Figuring out my purpose on this earth seems like an excellent way to achieve that goal.
So there I stood, fully embracing the clique as I asked myself, “What is the meaning of life?” While there are infinite ways to answer this question, all of my observations and personal conclusions have led me to the opinion that there are two camps in this discussion: the one concludes that life’s meaning consists of the tangible things we accomplish while the other stakes its claim upon the belief that it is rather the intangible experiences that matter. Does the solution live in one camp or the other? Or perhaps it stands somewhere in the middle with one foot in each camp?
To some, life makes the most sense when saturated with lists and goals. To others, satisfaction comes from conversations and stillness. By nature, we are all made with a certain leaning toward one side or the other. I personally find myself somewhat in the middle, though I do tend to set up shop in the “doing” camp more often than not (I can assure you it is not natural for me to stare absent-mindedly into a creek when there are tasks to achieve and people to avoid). So there I was, standing on a road above the middle of the creek, letting my mind ponder the mystery of purpose and life.
That’s when I thought of verbs.
In my elementary school, the method used to teach English grammar was catchy little jingles. Okay, they were utterly abysmal and cheesier than a dad joke Instagram feed, but I can’t deny that those little jingles will remain in my mind forever.
So there I was recalling the verb jingle that I had first heard 20 years ago. It went like this:
I’ll spare you the rest because the beginning is enough to show why this moment of déjà vu was making such a crater in the surface of my body of thought. A verb by definition is a word used to describe an action, state, or occurrence. Essentially, you might think of verbs as our fingerprint upon the world, the proof that we exist. It is essentially the scrapbook of changes made to the world due to our presence. So if we are going to talk about purpose, verbs seem like a pretty good place to start.
What struck me most about the concept of the verb was the fact that there are two types. I think we all understand action verbs: swim, work, hike, love, climb, etc. They’re tangible and it’s clear to see that you are “doing” something. The linking verbs, not so much. Linking verbs are things like be, feel, become, etc. There aren’t as many but they are integral to life. They describe existence and state. They may be harder to nail down but they are every bit as important when it comes to verbally expressing the world around us.
“Get to the point, DeNeui!” Roger that.
The point is this: if we have formed our paradigm of life around the idea that our purpose exists exclusively in either “doing” or “being”, we run the risk of life stealing our purpose and, hence, our hope when things don’t turn out the way we expect them to (which is quite often). Nothing could illustrate this more clearly than the existential crisis many “do-ers” experience upon suffering a debilitating injury which prevents them from doing the things that have always brought their life purpose.
In contrast to this paradigm, I have found that our souls are hardwired to experience the optimal state of thriving through the pursuit of the wisdom behind the unique purposes of action and linking verbs. At the intersection of being and doing is where our soul will find its deepest satisfaction. It is a place where neither disaster nor mundanity can rob us of our two-fold purpose in life; to be and to do. There’s something powerful about thinking of our purpose from the “verb” lens. I believe that if we apply it to our life and choose to live in the beautiful tension between “action” and “linking”, we will discover the freedom to be who we were truly made to be.
To my fellow “do-ers”, I have some ideas on how we can improve our state of tension between “doing” and “being”. First, don’t forget that people are ultimately what matter. While “doing” can be a great way of showing how much you care about others, sometimes “being” with them is all that’s needed. My challenge for you is to start a conversation with someone and intentionally choose not to look at your phone or get distracted by all the things you need to do next. Just be with them. You’d be surprised at the feeling of richness you’ll uncover when you allow yourself the freedom to let go of the “doing” and relish the “being.
Another tip that will help you embrace being more is practicing the art of presence. Essentially this entails taking an intentional amount of time to be still and center your mind in the present. Don’t think about what you need to get done or what happened yesterday. Simply focus your mind on your surroundings. I’ve made it a daily routine of mine to stand next to a creek each afternoon for a few minutes and focus my mind on my body’s state of being. In my mind, I list out what my body is sensing: the sound of the birds and the wind, the feeling of the breeze across my face, the pressure of the rocks beneath my feet. All of this aids me in regaining a sense of being centered in the moment. It’s sort of like my fortress against the battering rams of worry and anxiety that come from focusing too much on the never-ending list of things to do.
Above all, you must understand this: your purpose goes beyond the tangible improvements you make to the world. Only once doers discover the beauty and value of their simple presence will they arrive at a place of deep peace and fulfillment.
To my “be-ers” (not to be confused with “beers”), while I cannot relate with you in the same way I do with the do-ers, I can offer up some simple tips that might help you in your journey toward healthy “doing” and “being” tension. First, block off an hour or two in one of your days to do some intentional “self-work” that will help you become more like the person you deep down desire to be. I can assure you that the person you were meant to be is never the one standing in your shoes. I know that for me, I find it is impossible to know what steps I should take in becoming that person if I don’t first know which direction I should go. Andy Stanley once said that “Everybody gets somewhere in life. Some people get somewhere on purpose”.
Before taking action steps in your life to help you get closer to where you want to be, first make sure you know where you want to go. Often times it helps to write out a mission or vision statement for your life, but any tool that helps you intentionally map out your life’s journey will work. The richness and depth you feel from investing your time into the lives of loved ones and times of deep introspection do not have to be replaced with action verbs in order to live fulfilled, just supplemented.
If I had a dollar for every time someone said “Life is about…”, I still wouldn’t be any closer to fully understanding the complexity behind this topic. I would however be able to ponder it while sipping a sweet drink on a white sandy beach far, far away…
But I digress.
The question is this: can we arrive at a place where our purpose is derived both from doing AND being? Can we hold the tension between the two and hold it well? What it looks like for you and what it looks like for me will most certainly be different. Yet only when we are in pursuit of that tension will we discover our deepest gladness. Let us not forget the joy in pursuing balanced purpose in life. Instead, let us seek to bring our “doing” and our “being” closer together. Let us remember that the fullness of our lives is not limited to our contributions nor our experiences.
And most of all, let us not forget the wisdom we can glean from elementary English jingles.