Being More Than Being Useful

Wednesday, March 26, 2014 - 5:00 am

Being More Than Being Useful

“Camas Lilies,” by Lynn Ungar, is one of my favorite poems. I posted it earlier this year — today I needed to read it again…

I work hard at what I do, and I bet you do too. So maybe you need the same reminder I do: while my work is important, it is not a measure of my value or worth. Who we “be” is far more important than what we do or how well we do it. That’s why we’re called human beings, not human doings!

We pay a terrible price if we value our doing over our being. When we have to stop “doing” — e.g., because of job loss, illness, accident, or the diminishments that can come with age — we lose our sense of worthiness.

“Camas Lillies” reminds me to value “being” more than I value “being useful” — so that even when I’m forced to lay down my work, I can retain my sense of personal worth. Put simply and plainly, I can still love myself. That’s a gift many people need. If I can’t give it to myself, how can I possibly give it to others?

I take my work seriously, and I’m sure you do, too. But at age 75, I’m trying to learn (or re-learn) that, in the end, what matters most is not my ability to “produce” but my ability to love…

Camas Lilies
by Lynn Ungar

Consider the lilies of the field,
the blue banks of camas opening
into acres of sky along the road.
Would the longing to lie down
and be washed by that beauty
abate if you knew their usefulness,
how the native ground their bulbs
for flour, how the settlers’ hogs
uprooted them, grunting in gleeful
oblivion as the flowers fell?

And you—what of your rushed
and useful life? Imagine setting it all down—
papers, plans, appointments, everything—
leaving only a note: “Gone
to the fields to be lovely. Be back
when I’m through blooming.”

Even now, unneeded and uneaten,
the camas lilies gaze out above the grass
from their tender blue eyes.
Even in sleep your life will shine.
Make no mistake. Of course
your work will always matter.
Yet Solomon in all his glory
was not arrayed like one of these.

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. His book On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old will be published in June.

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