Modern man has reached a “fallen” state by becoming obsessed with being when what we really need is to know who we are. We cannot learn who we are through being. Being is a kind of essence; a state of awareness or consciousness of our surroundings and our own existence; it simply is; it has no identity. We discover who we are by learning about our own culture, about our own society, about the history of our own people, about our own personal past. To have an identity, to define ourselves, we must first put ourselves firmly in context.
To revive an old radio metaphor, being is the unmodulated carrier wave and identity is the modulated carrier wave – the music. Being is like a radio station that is “on air,” but broadcasting nothing but “dead air.” Radio does not come to life until something happens and keeps on happening. People work in much the same way.
The crucial point here is that we must make a clear distinction between being and identity if we are to walk the path to some kind of enlightenment or peace of mind. Pursuing being is a stagnant dead end, the last resort of the spiritually impoverished. Meditating ourselves into a recurring state of self-obliteration is most definitely not the way to a fulfilling life. The more typical (and more modern) pursuit of self-obliteration through drugs, booze, and incredibly loud music, while frenetic and noisy, is also about “being in the moment.” In reality, we achieve satisfying lives by doing something, not by sitting around or dancing around while we soak up our “being.” The earliest hermit monks cultivated gardens, made wine, wove baskets, or worked as simple ferrymen or silent gatekeepers. Their status as hermits was as much an identity as a state of being. Unlike moderns, they knew who they were.
There are serious consequences to believing in being rather than identity.
A preoccupation with being arises from self-centredness and an often-denied egocentricity, an attitude that leads to selfishness and a deliberate (and irresponsible) lack of concern for the future. Only the here and the now matters. If mere being is our goal, how could it be otherwise? When a society shelters large numbers of people with these values, it begins to falter from want of those who know what the society is all about, where it has come from, and what its goals are. When not enough people care, a society has no goals. It has lost its vision.
Identity is much richer and more complex than simple being. Identity is an abundant feast compared to the stark famine of being. A person with an identity understands their own culture (as opposed to someone else’s), knows their own history (from their own people’s point of view), and accepts their own personal and familial past (from their own perspective). Most of all, they pay attention to the society around them and regard it as an essential aspect of their own long-term survival. This view naturally leads to concern for the welfare of the family and the society of which they are a part. Such an outlook inevitably leads those who share it to consider – as they should – the future of their family and their society. Thus identity, and only identity, can lead to genuine altruistic behaviour.