Fromm Me To You – Part 01

I’ve been reading “To Have or To Be?” by Erich Fromm. His insights into human nature and behavior, education, raising children, faith, morality, greed, prosperity—to name only a few—are among the most poignant and thought provoking I’ve read in a long time. Like any good book, his insights raise good questions, rather than provide concrete answers.

Fromm attempts in various ways to show how pervasive the “having” mode of existence is in our culture. Take language. He talks about the “trend of the substitution of nouns for verbs.” He says:

“Here is a typical, if slightly exaggerated, example of today’s language. Assume that a person seeking a psychoanalyst’s help opens the conversation with the following sentence: ‘Doctor, I have a problem; I have insomnia. Although I have a beautiful house, nice children, and a happy marriage, I have many worries.’ Some decades ago, instead of ‘I have a problem,’ the patient probably would have said, ‘I am troubled’; instead of ‘I have insomnia,’ ‘I cannot sleep’; instead of ‘I have a happy marriage,’ ‘I am happily married.'” (21)

I noticed my tendency to not only do the above, but also to talk about time in a possessive way. For example, “I have time to read a book.” My perception of time as a commodity shows up in phrases like, “I made time for so-and-so,” or “We spent time together.” I’m finding that to talk about time in this way is to detract from the actual experience of being with someone, or enjoying a hobby. To go a bit deeper, Fromm writes:

“Speaking of having something permanently rests upon the illusion of a permanent and indestructible substance. If I seem to have everything, I have—in reality—nothing, since my having, possessing, controlling an object is only a transitory moment in the process of living.” (77)

This one really struck me. Not only because we are in the process of buying a house—the largest, most expensive possession I’ll (hopefully) ever buy—but because it sheds insight into why finding my identity in anything is futile, whether concrete or abstract. For example, it’s easy to find my identity in the things I have—job, family, socioeconomic status, money, skills—or what I do, create or produced in the world that might have a lasting impact. But all these things are impermanent. I am impermanent. So to say, “I am I because I have X,” as Fromm writes, is to say that “my property constitutes myself and my identity.”