Being More Than Being Useful

Wednesday, March 26, 2014 - 5:00am
Being More Than Being Useful

In our busy lives, a reminder from Parker Palmer that what matters most is not our ability to produce but our ability to love, and to just be. With a poem by Lynn Ungar.

Commentary by:
Parker J. Palmer (@parkerjpalmer),  special contributor
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Sunrise at Camas Prairie Centennial Park and Red Sky.

Credit: Charles Knowles License: Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

"Camas Lilies," by Lynn Ungar, is one of my favorite poems. I posted it earlier this year — today I needed to read it again…

I work hard at what I do, and I bet you do too. So maybe you need the same reminder I do: while my work is important, it is not a measure of my value or worth. Who we "be" is far more important than what we do or how well we do it. That's why we're called human beings, not human doings!

We pay a terrible price if we value our doing over our being. When we have to stop "doing" — e.g., because of job loss, illness, accident, or the diminishments that can come with age — we lose our sense of worthiness.

"Camas Lillies" reminds me to value "being" more than I value "being useful" — so that even when I'm forced to lay down my work, I can retain my sense of personal worth. Put simply and plainly, I can still love myself. That's a gift many people need. If I can't give it to myself, how can I possibly give it to others?

I take my work seriously, and I'm sure you do, too. But at age 75, I'm trying to learn (or re-learn) that, in the end, what matters most is not my ability to "produce" but my ability to love...

Camas Lilies
by Lynn Ungar

Consider the lilies of the field,
the blue banks of camas opening
into acres of sky along the road.
Would the longing to lie down
and be washed by that beauty
abate if you knew their usefulness,
how the native ground their bulbs
for flour, how the settlers' hogs
uprooted them, grunting in gleeful
oblivion as the flowers fell?

And you—what of your rushed
and useful life? Imagine setting it all down—
papers, plans, appointments, everything—
leaving only a note: "Gone
to the fields to be lovely. Be back
when I'm through blooming."

Even now, unneeded and uneaten,
the camas lilies gaze out above the grass
from their tender blue eyes.
Even in sleep your life will shine.
Make no mistake. Of course
your work will always matter.
Yet Solomon in all his glory
was not arrayed like one of these.

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Breathing this in. Thank you.

Ahhh, I needed that. Thank you for sharing and be great with yourself today.

The hills are beginning to turn green, a gift of God. I'm so thankful to be able to just Be, sit here and look out the window, and receive God's blessings.

Should anyone be interested in more of my poetry, my book, Bread and Other Miracles, is available at or the usual online sellers.

Trent Gilliss's picture

Hi Lynn. We had linked to your book in this essay and will gladly let as many people know about your wonderful poetry as possible!

Thanks for this reminder. Oh, to just be able to remember this on a regular basis.

As I grow older, I am starting to reflect on my accomplishments in my life. They have been many, but so many times, I gave up on what was probably more important than the betterment of my career. Yes, I am very well educated, accomplished a lot of my goals, but in doing so scarficed the importance of beauty, my art ability and a lot of times my family. Now that I see this, I have finally stopped and smelled the roses, which were the most important to me all alone. I think now, I will walk along my lake shore and also feel beautiful again.

As I have grown older i have reflected on my life. I am very well educated and have accomplished some goals that I have set for myself in the past. In doing so, I ended up sacrificing a lot of the things that I truly loved, that were right in front of me all of the time. I have decided to give myself a second chance at those things that really counted all along. I have slowed down, and am starting to walk along my peaceful side. I can finally see the things that are most important in my life. I am going to walk along the shore and also feel more beautiful than ever, and see life not in Rose colored glasses, by through what is clear and very dear to me.

"If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole world would change." People say now that these words did not come from the Buddha. But to my mind they echo Parker Palmer's beautiful reflection. Many thanks for this welcome posting.

I have always been trying to figure out just what was going on--so I could be a part of it. I was properly taught that this was an exciting place to be--a gift to be here--and that it was very important what you do with your life. I always felt there was so much more going on than I could comprehend. The conundrum is that, I tend to think now that I got just as far ahead as I ever could have, whatever I had done, just by staying alive! (--given all the things that have been doing, again, a big confusion for one who believes in individual effort, individual effort.)


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