I overheard a conversation this week that got me thinking about the transition from “doing” to “being”. This is one of the topics I explore in my workshop, No Time Like the Present (yes, that is a plug!). The conversation was focused on not doing enough. Of feeling frustrated and demoralized in the face of so much that needs to be done.

The conversation was between three healthcare professionals who have devoted their lives to helping others. Two are “retired” and one is still in the thick of things. I put “retired” in quotes, because what is true is that they are probably as busy as they ever were, but now are either volunteering or plying their craft part-time.

The meat of the discussion centered on the tension between the value-centered desire to ease the suffering of others and the recognition that they had neither the power nor influence sufficient to make that happen. They were clear that individual efforts felt minuscule in the face of the structural barriers inherent in our current healthcare system. Familiar bogeymen were identified including pharmaceutical companies charging too much, insurance companies limiting benefits, and systems of care that create more problems than they solve.

The conversation was all too familiar, as was the collective deflation as the inevitable conclusion was once again arrived at: nothing can be done.

On Reflection

We are a nation founded on a strong Puritan work ethic. “Doing” is everything!  If you are unable to “do something”, then there must be something very, very wrong.

Take a moment and think about all the feedback, criticism, praise, and reinforcement you received for “doing”. Now call to mind what kind of feedback, criticism, praise and reinforcement you got for just “being”. Just how big is that gap?

On a personal level, I struggle every day with my inner personal improvement plan. When I evaluate myself as having not done enough, I vow to change my ways and get back to the drawing board. Even when I have legitimate reasons for not doing, I find myself reciting invectives from my childhood, “You are so lazy!”, “You never finish anything!”, “How do you expect to make it in this world just lying around daydreaming?”

[I find it ironic that some of my favorite travel shows have presenters racing around beautiful places describing all the things that you can do when you get there. My dream vacation is taking a place in a small seaside town for a month and just hanging out. Of course, filming people just sitting around doesn’t make for good television, or so I am told.]

“Doing Distracts; Being Attracts”

The advantage of “doing” is that it distracts from the discomfort that “not doing” brings up. Cognitive behavioral therapy is filled with short-term strategies that address this kind of stress. If you are anxious, use the 5-4-3-2-1 strategy to pull your mind away from the worry thoughts. If you are feeling frustrated, go for a walk, dance, or sing. Distraction DOES work. But it is not a long-term solution

Learning to tolerate the discomfort, distress, or uncertainty is an alternative. It requires a different mindset and a different set of skills. It requires that you “be” with whatever is going on. Eventually this attracts a sense of spaciousness and, in almost every case, a sense of calm.

Applying this strategy does successfully address that feeling of frustration at not being able to “do something!”

Two Different POVs

Once we are out of the workforce, the reach of our power and influence is greatly reduced. The frustration expressed by the three folks whose conversation I mentioned at the beginning probably comes from a combination of seeing that something needs to be done, having a solution, but not being able to get that solution implemented.  It reflects a very real experience of being marginalized because of being “retired”.

Another point of view here is that we are re-defining “doing” and “being” at a cultural level. There is more to “doing” than producing a widget and there is more to “being” than quitting your job. Creating balance between “doing” and “being” should be a goal for all stages of psycho-social development. It is not just a consequence of an age cut-off.

The Myth of Retirement

The myth of retirement is that you don’t have to work after you retire. From an economic perspective, this is true for a very small percentage of elders. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2020, 10.6 million workers were 65 or older. Estimates are that number will grow to 16 million by 2030. How many of these workers need jobs to supplement their income? How many are working because they find it rewarding and stimulating?  This is fertile ground for researchers.

Retirement as a concept is in its infancy. Social Security was enacted in 1935. Only two generations have benefited from a system that guarantees a modest income after age 65 (for most) and for those who are disabled. It has made a huge difference in the quality of life for elders in this nation in that short period of time.

Based on my own experience, chronological age is a poor marker for determining a person’s capacity for work and ability to do the job. I jokingly used to say that I would continue my career as a psychologist as long as I could listen and ask, “How does that make you feel?”

Yet, I officially retired from private practice last year. My decision was based more on wanting to do other things than not loving what I was doing. I continue to make a difference in people’s lives; I am just doing it a different way. I have transitioned from “doing” to “being” and am pursuing different activities that address both an economic need and a social/intellectual need.

Transitioning from Doing to Being

I still have capacity for work, but I am definitely transitioning. I no longer want to spend an entire day in a therapeutic conversation. I enjoy my time meditating and relaxing.

I also spend many hours in creative pursuits including writing and cooking. While technically these can be categorized as “doing”, they also have wonderful “being” qualities. I am far less distracted these days, and am experiencing greater spaciousness of thoughts and time. I am spending more time “being” than “doing”. And I find myself more at peace.

I would love to hear from you where you think you are in this transition. Please share!

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