How to Be or Not to Be, That Is the Question

Critically important in our current climate.

Posted Oct 18, 2017

In a recent broadcast of On Being, Krista Tippet had Arnold Eisen on to talk about the Jewish mystic, theologian, philosopher, and activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. My admiration for Heschel began when I was in seminary long ago. Heschel said things like, “Prayer is the way we bring God into the world” or “Pray with your feet” during the civil rights era, statements that demystified the holy and suggested that God was not “out there” but “here,” alive in and through us.

In this interview Eisen quoted Heschel as saying, “To be or not to be, isn’t the question…the question is how to be or how not to be.” As a therapist and clergy for forty years, I know that for a great many people, “to be or not to be” is the question. It is the question they struggle with every day of their lives and sometimes conclude that not being is the better option, a loss for all of us. Nevertheless, I found Heschel’s notion about how to be stirring. I wondered if at the bottom of the question of whether to be or not, was despair about how to be in this world in a meaningful way.

Despite the fact that I am in the final third of my life, when how to be may seem much less consequential, I find myself wrestling with the question as much or more than ever before. There are a great many reasons for this. But there is no doubt that chief among them is the current dominance of social and political examples of how not to be.

I am finding that to answer the question of how to be, I am thrown back on my understanding of being itself, not to get too highfalutin. I need some basis for how to think about my ethical, moral being in the world. When I look at what we have learned from physics, biology, environmental sciences, astronomy, as well as theology and philosophy, I find a unifying idea: Everything everywhere is connected; everything everywhere is connected and mutually influential. My tendency to focus on my own individuality often blurs the fact that whether it is at the molecular level or the interpersonal level or the community level or the national level or the planetary level or the cosmic level, I am part of everything and everything is a part of me.

When I think of it that way, answering the question of how to be is easier. I want to be curious, appreciative, welcoming, compassionate, and just. The hard part for me is doing those things consistently. But now, more than ever, the effort seems critically important.