[You can see Fromm’s book online here.]
“Poverty is when your dreams shift from who you are to what you have.” — Mayan leader in Guatemala. (from our work with CARE to re-define poverty in Guatemala, click here)
In the thriving success of capitalism, a growing community of thinkers and doers question whether people are better off today because they have accumulated more stuff. This emerging question is a modern twist on an old question — is human well-being defined by having or being?
In this classic text, Erich Fromm frames the age-old question — “the great Masters of Living have made the alternative between having and being a central issue of their respective systems” (Fromm 2013, 13) — then explores the implications for modern applications of economics, politics, culture, and social interactions, which I refer to as “the four big questions.”
From an Ecosynomic perspective, “having” focuses on the outcomes level of perceived reality where one’s awareness is conscious of the things one has. “Being” focuses on the potential and development levels of perceived reality where one’s awareness is conscious of possibilities and the pathways for developing those possibilities over time.
“By being or having I do not refer to certain separate qualities of a subject as illustrated in such statements as “I have a car” or “I am white” or “I am happy.” I refer to two fundamental modes of existence, to two different kinds of orientation toward self and the world, to two different kinds of character structure the respective dominance of which determines the totality of a person’s thinking, feeling, and acting” (Fromm, 2013, p. 21).
While the “having” and the “being” schools both acknowledge the importance of the three levels of reality of potential, development, and outcomes, Ecosynomic research shows that the two schools propose completely different starting points, resulting in completely different experiences.
The high vibrancy groups we have met use some form of the “grounded potential” pathway, starting with infinite potential, discovering pathways for developing those potentials over time into sustainable outcomes. These groups relate strongly to the “being” school. The more mainstream groups we have studied relate strongly the “having” school. They prefer the “enlightened matter” pathway, looking to develop the capacities to deliver more efficient outcomes, and the potential to further develop those capacities.
Emerging research seems to show that the higher vibrancy groups following the “grounded potential” pathway achieve much greater results on a much more sustainable basis. This is the outcome both schools want — one just seems to achieve it better than the other.