To Do or To Be?

At lunch the other day here in San Miguel de Allende, two women friends and I got to talking about, among other things, the role older women should play in our communities. This discussion was, I think, prompted by last week’s WOW post inviting recommendations for prospective interviewees, women over the age of seventy who were still “creating and contributing,” women who could serve as positive role models for younger people (

My two friends, both in their early seventies, and, like me, long divorced and mothers of middle-aged children, gave me lots of food for thought over that lunch. I appreciated – and gained from – their differing points of view.

“We can’t all be writers or artists or role models,” one of them said. “Reading that blog post made me feel bad about myself. I’ve never considered myself a big achiever.”

The other said, “At this stage of my life, I just want to BE. I’m quite over trying to live up to others’ expectations of me. All I want is to be quietly happy. I want to be me.”

I used to tell my English 101 students that essays “should be the size of shoe boxes, not football fields.” In other words, don’t take on a subject that’s too large (“like World Hunger,” I used to say). Essays, especially personal essays, are meant to be small things, exercises in studying a subject and sharing it from your own point of view, never intended to be the last word.

That’s the way I see my blog posts, anyway. They’re derived from me — my mind, my heart, my (far from usual) life experiences – with all the quirks that that entails. I’m glad when they spark discussions. We all benefit from learning from others’ vantage points.

As I ate my chicken enchiladas at that Mexican restaurant, I wondered, Why have I never been able to just BE? What might that feel like? Where does this drive in me, always to be DO-ing, always pushing myself and striving, come from? I’m sure that philosophers and psychologists have had a lot to say on the issue of Doing vs. Being, but I could only narrow the subject to my own experience.

I tried to explain to my friends over lunch what might well be the source of this burr under my saddle since childhood:

“When I was little, my angry, drunken father used to say to us his four kids all the time, ‘Don’t just sit there doing nothing [we might have been watching ‘Lassie’], get up off your fat asses [we were all skinny] and do something around here! [something he himself never did]. Justify your existence!!!’ At first, I was too young to even understand the meaning of the words justify and existence. But with his repeated use, I learned them well. And I’ve been trying to justify my existence ever since.”

My friends seemed saddened by this true story, and I was sorry to see that. Yes, he was a negative role model to be sure, but in a way (I like to think) my father’s mean-spirited words, which stemmed from his own failures and life disappointments, worked out positively for me. Without any encouragement or support from him, I pushed myself to DO. I became a high achiever. And I came to look up to other high achievers (but never movie stars or athletes) as role models.

Another relevant memory surfaced, but too late to share with my friends over lunch:

My mother told me a story once, while she was dishing up dinner at the kitchen stove and I was taking each plate out to the dining room, about a boy that she and my father had grown up with in their New Jersey home town. His name, as I recall my mother telling me, was Tom Collins (the name, coincidentally, of one of my father’s favorite drinks). That boy’s father, my mother said, was a drunk, as many of the Irish immigrants became in their disillusionment with this new country. But the son never drank, my mother said. Instead, he grew up to become a well respected judge. “Everyone in town admired Tom,” she said.

In that instant, Tom Collins became a hero to me. Sometimes, I’ve learned, the stories of individuals’ triumphs can give others of us hope.

That’s why, through the occasional interview on my blog, I’ve wanted to present potential role models. I’ve chosen to feature older women who, despite setbacks and heartbreaks and discrimination perhaps, are still achieving, creating, and contributing in some way. I’ve wanted to take them off the sidelines, out of the shadows, give them visibility, let them tell their stories.

The “girl” with the burr… (Photo credit: Kharin Gilbert)

It’s not that we all can be like them – or would even want to be. (I’ve never, for instance, wanted to be a judge like Tom Collins). But to my mind, these WOW interviews represent a small effort to right the scales and say, Look! We older women still have something to offer! Don’t write us off or view us as has-beens! We refuse to be stereotyped or negated!

As for my being content to just BE — well, I still have to learn how to do that. It sounds so peaceful — blissful, even. Perhaps it requires removing that deeply imbedded burr beneath my saddle. Hmmm… I guess I must DO something about that, if anything can be done.

39 thoughts on “To Do or To Be?”

  1. I love this article because it speaks to many personal issues I am grappling with right now. I am a psychologist who has just published my third book, My first memoir, The Girl in the Red Boots:Making Peace with My Mother- I have been working on this book for decades and I’m thrilled to have published it and yet I miss having this consuming project that has preoccupied me for ages! I am now giving lots of podcasts and writing articlesWhich is exciting in its own way, but I notice how much I miss having this difficult challenge which finishing this book was! I think having challenges in our life keeps us growing not that I don’t have other challenges because of course I do, at 78. Looking forward to hear others responses.

    1. Thanks so much for this, Judy, and for urging others to respond. Yes, it would be wonderful to have a full discussion on this challenging subject with lots of WOW readers. Best, Bonnie

  2. I had a wonderful meditation teacher years back, who often said
    two wonderful things: “Don’t just DO something, SIT there!”
    And – “Remember, we are human begins, not only human doings.”

  3. Enjoyed reading this reflection, Bonnie. We all have such different paths to follow in our lives. I believe that those who are content to just be are doing what is right for them, but just “being” isn’t necessarily correct for all of us!

  4. All my work-a-day life, I did things I was supposed to do as a responsible citizen. Paid my taxes. Saved for my son’s college education. Provided for my family as a single working mother. Put aside funds for retirement. Once I was retired, I couldn’t wait to do all the creative things I had deferred all my life. Now I am happily both being AND doing: being a writer, and doing writing.

  5. So when are you going to interview someone who just “Be’s?” I, myself, am enjoying a time in my life when I’m not called upon to do much of anything, if I don’t want to. Lately, something appeared, though. I realized that I, unlike most people I know, enjoy writing long emails. It occurred to me that I really like writing. Perhaps I can write. So I started. That’s Doing and Being at the same time, I think.

    1. So far, Helaine, the “Be”s whom I know have told me they don’t want to be interviewed! 🙂 Yes, I’m sure it’s all about balance (as is most things in life): Doing and Being at the same time, happily.

  6. A supercilious comment from me, via Dr. Frank Sinatra, little-known psychologist: “do-be-do-be-dooo. . .”

  7. My mother was a divorced woman, single parent long before it was fashionable to be one. She put both of us through school, and became the college counselor for our ‘prestigious independent school’. She influenced so many students; she would definitely understand the get up and do something philosophy, but I was lucky enough to have her in my life long enough to show me also how to just be. Not that I always do it without feeling that burr. But thank you for reminding me.

  8. Oh, la Bonnie! Yes, balance is the key.
    Sometimes I sits and thinks, sometimes I just sits, said Winnie the Pooh. Right now, I like to sits nomas.
    You are muy bella!

  9. There seems to be a lack of nuance here or possibly a lack of definition. If we are alive are we not by definition BEING whether or not we are deeply appreciating the moment to moment of it all. And if we are simply enjoying the dawn with a cup of Zen tea are we not as well actively DOING the drinking and gazing? Does one label earn a greater respect than the other? Or can we not enjoy the Yin Yang of doing and being as two sides of the same thing?

    1. I can relate, Luanne! I suspect — though I could, of course, be wrong — that the ability to BE might have its origins in early childhood for children who are wanted and cherished. Speaking only for myself, I can say that an unwanted child might feel the need to go through life DO-ing things that “justify their existence.” But when, I wonder, does that stop? (Just musing out loud here.)

  10. I’ve appreciated your reflections here, Bonnie, including all the comments you’ve received. We all have much to take way- or rather, to ”sit with” from these conversations..
    just one last thought in passing..Think for a moment about the somewhat outdated greeting “How Do you Do?” …
    -Why is it not ”How Do You Be?”. We don’t often give consideration to how we are programmed linguistically…

    1. Thank you, Kathryn. Yes, aren’t all the comments wonderful?! I love our having this discussion and learning from readers’ experiences and points of view.

  11. Thank you for this. I do believe that it is in our essence—DOers and BEers. I have happily found more of a balance in my advanced years—without guilt! The pandemic measures have helped that. I will always be more of a DOer but I realize that just BEing is important too.

  12. My move to SMA in a couple of months, at age 72, is precisely to practice just”being.” I have never been comfortable just living a life for myself either.. and it is high time I learn. .l I’m no woman of great accomplishment, and while I thought I needed to be really important, or creative, or a big change maker, before I had the right to live for myself, I believe I have finally reached a point when I can say, I’ve done what I could to help and not harm. I will find small ways to be involved in SMA I’m sure, but mostly I want to enjoy this beautiful city, it’s people, learn to draw or paint (finally), get healthier, be able to afford bodywork to care for my aging/hurting body. What a concept.

    1. Thank you for this, Susan. Yes, I’m sure you’ll find all that you’re hoping for in your new life in beautiful SMA — plus, I’m sure, you’ll find a way to contribute to the community. There are so many ways to do so, and you’ll meet wonderful people in doing so.

  13. Interesting. How about try morning coffee/tea just be on the terrace/patio 1st thing a few mornings and see how that goes? Even in PJ’s or robe. Staring into space, both hands grasping a mug. Slow small sips. Zoning out.

  14. Dear Bon,
    Thank you for another thoughtful post. I don’t consider being and doing as mutually exclusive. We all do things while we are “just being,” and some people may actually believe the things they do are what constitutes their “being.” I believe we can all work to make the world a better place, even as we sit quietly in our own little corner. It isn’t necessary to be an artist or a role model, to be able to contribute to the greater good.

  15. Bonnie Dear, I’m sorry you felt like you had to apologize for trying to inspire your readers. Speaking as someone who calls herself Be, women (and men) can still Do while just Being themselves! Keep doing what you’re doing, and we thank you for it. And like Paul said, we can all make a difference just by taking the time acknowledge others in respectful ways. That alone makes a difference in the world.

    1. Always trying to justify my existence, Be! 🙂 It’s a lifelong habit… Yes, I agree with you and Paul — and others in this wonderful discussion — that we all must strive to strike a healthy balance between Be-ing and Do-ing.

  16. Your friend’s comment made me sad, Bonnie, similar to the way I felt years ago when a friend said, “Food is the only thing I’ve got going for me.” But then I had a second, more uplifting, thought: at least your friend didn’t say she felt “badly” about herself.

  17. A proposito, your followers should read two wonderful old books if they haven’t already — Mary Pipher’s “Seeking Peace: Chronicles of the Worst Buddhist in the World,” and Sylivia Boorstein’s “Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There.”

  18. To “Be” or not to “BE,” that is the question. I think of myself as the “Has been” who never was.
    I was always in demand as a teacher and then an advocate and spokesperson representing “Older Americans” on Capitol Hill and across the country.
    I am now in my late 70s, (very late) and no one wants me for anything. I think i have finally adjusted to that fact and am finding a great freedom in not having to meet expectations.
    My “Doing” is being kind and reaching out to friends and family during Covid. Staying connected and reaching out to those less fortunate does take time and some energy, but having no outside pressure makes it quite doable. Having whole days to enjoy this beautiful world of nature and protect myself from the ugliness is a great gift of “Being.”

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