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Why the only way to approach “The Great Mystery” is to give up on the idea of doing.By C. W. Huntington, Jr.
In a well-known passage from the King James Bible, the story of Jesus at the home of Mary, Martha, and their brother Lazarus, there is a story that is often interpreted as a parable about two ways of living the spiritual life:
Now it came to pass, as they went, that Jesus entered into a certain village, and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister named Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word. But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, “Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? Bid her therefore that she help me.” And Jesus answered and said unto her, “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things. But one thing is needful. And Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”
Martha’s way embodies the active, busy life of engagement in the world while Mary’s approach is the contemplative life based not on doing, but on being: Martha is “cumbered about much serving . . . careful and troubled about many things” whereas Mary apparently knows that only “one thing is needful;” she “hath chosen that good part.”
This story holds meaning and relevance to both Christians and Buddhists, as well as anyone with an interest in the depths of human experience. There is a wisdom here that transcends any particular religious tradition.
I recently thought of Mary and Martha while reading What Are Old People Forby Cornell University gerontologist Dr. William Thomas. Thomas writes in the book that our secular society assigns a near-exclusive value to the “adult way of living,” which is defined by doing.
“Doing is what happens when we come into relationship with and manipulate the visible, material world that surrounds us,” he writes. “This emphasis ensures that work will result in discrete, measurable, and sometimes profitable changes in the environment.” According to Thomas, “the purest expression of doing” is found in the tools and technology that we create because “they engage and manipulate matter and energy with visible, measurable results.” Technological gadgets such as computers and smart phones have us virtually addicted to doing, and Thomas characterizes our modern, adult way of living as machine-like—efficient and goal-oriented, focused on results, and obsessed with our own creations.
I teach a class at Hartwick College that requires students to volunteer at a hospice. One of their biggest challenges is sitting with dementia patients, who are often either incoherent, mute, or asleep. “What should I do?” the students want to know. “There’s nothing to do,” I say. “Just sit there. Just be with your patient.” To simply sit quietly with another person—to be present without doing anything, without serving, without scrolling on their phones—is alien to them.
Thomas contrasts the adult obsession with doing with what he calls being:
Living, as we do, in the Age of the Machine, it seems slightly suspect even to ask, ‘What is being?’ The very question suggests a woolly-minded lack of seriousness. Whereas doing is visible and quantifiable and generates useful, real-word results, being concerns itself with things that cannot be seen. To be is to create and sustain relationships with the invisible and the intangible . . .
The invisible and intangible will not submit to our desire for control: I can order another person to do something and easily determine whether she follows through, but I cannot command that same person to be something. In particular, I cannot require another person to be in love. “Love,” Thomas says, “is a product of the intangible being and as such cannot, itself, be physically sensed or measured.” And if the obsession with doing defines the “adult” way of living that characterizes our machine age, then being defines what it is to not be an adult. Human infants embody being: they accomplish nothing in the world, and whether they are asleep or awake they have the capacity to draw us into a web of interdependent relations where getting things done is no longer the guiding concern.
Human relationships emerge simply from being together. Some of the most miraculous moments of my life have been spent lying on the couch in the sun with my infant son or daughter asleep on my chest…