THE BLOG
12/20/2013 02:11 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2014

Human Beings or Human Doings?

"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"
--from Mary Oliver's "The Summer Day"

Years ago, I ran across a cartoon with the caption "The Mayfly Graduation." Mayflies, if you aren't an entomologist (and I'm not), belong to the insect order Ephemeroptera, because their lives are so ephemeral. Depending upon the species, the average lifespan of an adult mayfly ranges from 30 minutes to an entire day.

The cartoon had a single frame, which showed a graduating class of mayflies in caps and gowns. The commencement speaker -- at the podium and also a mayfly -- addressed the graduates with a sobering twist on the usual exhortation: "Graduates, this is the only day of the rest of your life."

On such occasions it is a whole lot better to belong to the species Homo sapiens than to the order Ephemeroptera. Lord willing, each of us has many days ahead, not just a few minutes or hours.

But as always, with opportunity, comes responsibility. What do I do with my allotted threescore and 10 years, give or take a few? Truth be told, many of us, young and old, spend a lot of energy agonizing over this question.

How we answer it depends in part upon our point of view; that is, whether we see ourselves as human beings or as human doings.

My observation is that most of us live our lives as if we believe we are human doings. Our lives are crammed with wall-to-wall activities, as if an idle moment is something to be feared and avoided at all costs. It is the American way to be insanely busy. Isn't that well and good, you might ask? Most of our "doings" are about doing "good" in some manner or another, aren't they?

It may be surprising to hear what the beloved Catholic monk Thomas Merton had to say about the situation in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.

There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence [and that is] activism and overwork.

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence.

The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom [that] makes work fruitful.

These are strong words. Surely Merton does not mean that we shouldn't go about being involved in giving of ourselves and in doing good.

Merton, I believe, was simply acknowledging the ancient Greek wisdom that the first order of business is to know thyself, and that to know thyself takes time and requires reflection. The person who is true-to-self will chose activity wisely. That person's good works will flow naturally from a spring of genuineness, and they will be far more appropriately directed and effective. Indeed, much of what passes for evil in our nation and our world comes of the good intentions of people who understand neither themselves nor their place in the cosmos.

How then does one get to know oneself? There is no magic formula. One thing is sure, however: self-knowledge requires an investment of time, and some of that time needs to be spent in solitude. Time in nature has proved effective for many: Francis of Assisi, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Rachel Carson, or poet Mary Oliver -- whose poem "The Summer Day" inspired this essay -- to name a few.

So... turn off the cellphone for an hour, a day, or a week. Unplug the earbuds. Hike the Appalachian Trail, or a piece of it. Sleep out under the stars. Lie in the grass and watch the clouds drift by. Get to know a flower or a tree on a first name basis. Listen to a gurgling spring until you know its song by heart. Learn to recognize every bird song you possibly can.

For those times not in nature, learn to meditate. Take a yoga class. Pay attention to your dreams. Keep a journal. Read poetry. Better yet, write poetry. Above all, learn to love the silence -- and the still small voice that can be heard only by a settled mind.

When all is said and done, who we are may be more important than what we do. Life on earth is a great symphony for which each has an instrument to play and a part to learn. If we fail to learn that part, then perhaps there exists a small void in the great universe that may never, ever be filled.

And so, which are we? Human beings or human doings? Hopefully we are both. May your doings and mine emerge from a sound sense of being, for if they do, we will each be better off and so will the world.

(This essay was adapted from the author's commencement address to graduates of the Class of 2009 of the College of Science and Mathematics at James Madison University.)