Being More Than Being Useful

Wednesday, March 26, 2014 - 5:00am

Being More Than Being Useful

"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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Parker J. Palmer

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include Healing the Heart of Democracy, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.

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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.)

great reminder :)

What a wonderful reminder. I am a clinical psychologist, and I consider my work go consist of "loving in a skillful way," and how fortunate I feel to have been called to do this work rather than some other work. This, nevertheless involves doing. I make so little time in my life to just be. Thank you for the reminder of how important this is.

This is wonderful, after my NDE I find it difficult to accept the labels we put on humans according to their "success", instead of embracing the differences in us

Thank you for this incredible photo and the original poem. I have shared it with others. Here is a link to beautiful vocal on "Lilies of the Field.

"Beauty gently unfolds in a fleeting moment but its eidetic image lasts forever in the landscape of our mind."

A reminder needed as much at 25 as, I believe you, it will be later. Thank you Lynn and Parker for the reassurance; even in the energies and activity of youth, blooming precedes ambition.

Thank-you for that. If only I could remember that all the time; instead I feel really useless when I am not producing something. I think it was the way we were brought up.

I've worked with teachers circling around this wonderful poem many times. It always opens up such wonderful reflections and sharing. A couple of years ago, part of my own reflective processing of the poem resulted in a song, Lovely Now. You can view a live studio performance of the song on YouTube at this link:

Below are the lyrics...and thanks for the inspiration, Lynn!

Lovely Now

I worked as hard as anyone could do
I worked for them, I even worked for you,
Am I lovely now, tell me, am I lovely now?

I felt as useful as any tool,
Just fold me up next to the carpenter’s rule
Am I lovely now, tell me, am I lovely now?

Whose field is this?
Whose sunshine and whose rain?
Whose plot is this?
Whose plow and whose pain?
Oh, would you cut me now?
Is that the marketable plan?
Even the mower
Sometimes lets the lilly stand.

Birds conspire with the summer clouds
No bottom line, no cheering crowds…
Am I lovely now, tell me, am I lovely now?
Am I lovely now, tell me, am I lovely now?

Whose field is this?
Whose sunshine and whose rain?
Whose plot is this?
Whose plow and whose pain?
Oh, would you cut me now?
Is that the marketable plan?
Even the mower
Sometimes lets the lilly stand.

Some need to bloom, others need to sing
But the sweetest work is in the Being
In the Being, in the Being,
Being Now…

Whose field is this?
Whose sunshine and whose rain?
Whose plot is this?
Whose plow and whose pain?
Oh, would you cut me now?
Is that the marketable plan?
‘Cause even the mower
Sometimes lets the lilly stand.

How good to read this as I sit down this morning to write a short talk to give in church.

Just Be. And all will be well.

The poem is lovely and inspiring. When feeling rushed or stressed it helps to remind myself I am a human being first and a human doing next.

Love these writings, thank you.

Thank you for sharing this beautiful poem.
I take much joy in the beauty of nature that
surrounds me and this reinforces the importance
of "just being" to energize your zest for life.
Life lived simply is truly an awakening.

Thank you so much for this beautiful essay. I needed to read this today. And you've shared another poem that is one of my favorites too. Happy August!

A note for Lynn Ungar: I don't have many meditation manuals left anymore. They have drifted this way or that over time. But I am careful to keep your Blessing the Bread, the Clark Dewey Wells manual, The Strangeness of This Business, Vanessa Southern's, Sources of Our Faith-the compilation, and Elizabeth Tarbox's. Your meditation manual is a good gift.

Lifted heart here.