Erich Fromm, To Have or to Be? (Possessiveness)

…The cautious, the having persons enjoy security, yet by necessity they are very insecure. They depend on what they have: money, prestige, their ego – that is to say, on something outside themselves. But what becomes of them if they lose what they have? For, indeed, whatever one has can be lost. Most obviously, one’s property can be lost – and with it usually one’s position, one’s friends – and at any moment one can, and sooner or later one is bound to, lose one’s life.

If I am what I have and if what I have is lost, who then am I? Nobody but a defeated, deflated, pathetic testimony to a wrong way of living. Because I can lose what I have, I am necessarily constantly worried that I shall lose what I have. I am afraid of thieves, of economic changes, of revolutions, of sickness, of death, and I am afraid of love, of freedom, of growth, of change, of the unknown. Thus I am continuously worried, suffering from a chronic hypochondriasis, with regard not only to loss of health but to any other loss of what I have; I become defensive, hard, suspicious, lonely, driven by the need to have more in order to be better protected. Ibsen has given a beautiful description of this self-centered person in his Peer Gynt. The hero is filled only with himself; in his extreme egoism he believes that he is himself because he is a “bundle of desires.” At the end of his life he recognizes that because of his property-structured existence, he has failed to be himself, that he is like an onion without a kernel, an unfinished man, who never was himself.

The anxiety and insecurity engendered by the danger of losing what one has are absent in the being mode. If I am who I am and not what I have, nobody can deprive me of or threaten my security and my sense of identity. My center is within myself; my capacity for being and for expressing my essential powers is part of my character structure and depends on me. This holds true for the normal process of living, not, of course, for such circumstances as incapacitating illness, torture, or other cases of powerful external restrictions.

While having is based on some thing that is diminished by use, being grows by practice. (The “burning bush” that is not consumed is the biblical symbol for this paradox.) The powers of reason, of love, of artistic and intellectual creation, all essential powers grow through the process of being expressed. What is spent is not lost, but on the contrary, what is kept is lost. The only threat to my security in being lies in myself: in lack of faith in life and in my productive powers; in regressive tendencies; in inner laziness and in the willingness to have others take over my life. But these dangers are not inherent in being, as the danger of losing is inherent in having.”

– Chapter VI: Further Aspects of Having and Being

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