‘The Art of Being’, within a heritage setting

‘The Art of Being’, within a heritage setting – How archaeology and heritage projects can help us to develop Erich Fromm’s research into well-being.

Having fled Nazi Germany in 1933, Erich Fromm settled in the US where he established himself as one of the world’s best-known social psychologists.  In his book, The Art of Being, he suggests a way of securing authentic self-awareness through self-analysis, something which he stresses is no easy task but vital to improving well-being.  With an interest in delivering personal development activities, built upon an authentic appreciation of who we really are, I was curious to investigate how much of Fromm’s thinking exists within our chosen vehicle of delivery, heritage and archaeology projects.

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There is a vast difference between ‘being’ and ‘having’ in life and if one or the other dominates it can damage our sense of well-being.  Our economy is driven by consumption and, as a result, there exists a deep-rooted selfishness where ownership is a more desirable measure of success than love and respect for life.  Fromm suggests that for ‘humanization’ to occur, we need to move away from this exhausting need to passively own something to enjoy a greater satisfaction generated by participating actively in life.  However, an active participatory existence requires us to think about what point there is to our lives.  In other words,  we need to ask ourselves, who am I? and what do I want my life to be?

So, Fromm starts by asking the questions, “what is the goal of living?  What is life’s meaning for man?”  Before answering, he pauses to establish if this questions itself has any meaning.  He accepts that people have an innate desire to live, unless one is in unbearable pain or when consumed by passions such as love, hate, jealousy or anger.  This ‘will to live’, ingrained through years of evolution has created a secondary requirement, to ask why we live? To elaborate on why we live, we have to take a step back and consider that when we ask people how they wish to live, what it is that has meaning that is unique to them, their mission if you like, you will receive many different answers.

Fundamentally, each one of us has a desire to be happy and this concept of ‘happiness’ has concerned philosophers, psychologists and theologians since time immemorial.  However, it is vital to secure individual happiness, that we don’t lose ourselves in abstract ideas of what happiness is and means to those institutional thinkers en masse, but to discover its meaning to each and every one of us, and only by ourselves.  It is also important for us to distance ourselves from falsehoods that would have us believe that celebrity status and ego-lessness or mass-consumerism and individualism are compatible entities.

To liberate ourselves from the shackles of external institutional domination, be they formed by the church, politics, places of education or other institutions, is necessary because such control cripples most of the real us that can be found within.  We have to be aware, however, that, historically, it has sadly all too often been seen that the freedom acquired by the shedding of external shackles becomes our next cage.  Is it merely an accident that the word gaol and goal are so similar? Fromm writes that “…the outer shackles have simply been put inside of man”, and asks if it is indeed possible to take the ideas of an inner and outer liberation and rebuild them together with reason, both as applied to science and self-awareness?

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For those who feel that the journey towards personal enlightenment can be achieved quickly, Fromm tells us that it is desperately naïve to believe we can understand the meaning of life rapidly and without guidance.  What took the “greatest minds of the human species” thousands of years to begin to understand cannot be achieved by us without time and teaching.  As Meister Eckart put it, “How can anyone live without being instructed in the art of living and dying?”  Whilst ‘The Art of Being’ was never designed to be a step by step self-help book, it does contain several factors contributing to happier lives.  But before we look at those factors, let us consider where the world is, according to Fromm.  Frighteningly, much of what he describes, it could be argued, has changed little since he was researching this field.

A ‘Great Sham’ exists.  Products, advertising, commodities, driven by profit rather than usefulness for human beings, encroach upon our minds at an alarming rate, unfiltered by a ‘third ear’, that which seeks evidence for the truth in what is being said.  How often do we see information or products positioned as the best, the one and only, the original, the genuine?  An alarming number of posts on some history focused social media sites aim to educate, or arguably shock or humour us, by making statements of fact.

Within the many smiling, or crying emojis, will invariably be seen a comment that tests the author’s authenticity and helpfully points us to the factual evidence, but, in the meantime, how many hundreds of people, scrolling down, usually in haste, simply believe what they have read?  We often take information as gospel truth if it is delivered by someone with a strong public profile, celebrities for example, rarely considering the army of press teams, publicists, public relations, literary agents and event organisers who have an interest, not in seeing the real person, with real values, but to promulgate ‘their’ creation of that person.  Even in art, we have lost an ability to separate what is genuine and what is fake, but fear not, for we can sit on our sofas and be fed this information from programmes that tell us what is fake and what might provide the owner with a fortune!  We are brainwashed by pizazz and fame and are widely losing the ability of critical thinking for ourselves.

“The average man thinks today very little for himself.  He remembers data as presented by schools and the mass media; he knows practically nothing of what he knows by his own observing and thinking.  Nor does his use of things require much thought or skill”.  Writing about philosophy or religion, Fromm states, “He ordinarily adopts one or the other of the many clichés offered him by political or religious books or speakers, but the conclusions are not arrived at as a result of active and penetrating thinking of his own”.

Alluding to the high levels of conformity present in life, he continues, “He chooses the cliché that appeals most to his own character and social class”.  Conversely, to primitive people, who, through their proximity to nature and other people’s behaviour together with an innate survival instinct, observed more and learned more from skills by doing and thinking things through for themselves rather than through templated quick-fix lessons.  Life, for our ancient predecessors, was a continued journey of learning, of being, rather than one where, in a state of absolute passivity, our needs today are immediately and with seemingly endless choice administered to by others.

Help that exists by well-intended people aiming to help people quickly find meaning in their lives often perpetuates the misconception that it can all be achieved quickly and effortlessly, with no pain.  Personal and spiritual development has become industrialised, increasingly recognised as being sheep-dip, process driven and homogenised in its branding and delivery.  From this ‘commercialization’ can only come short-term benefit.  Even language has become part of the sales pitch.  Words and phrases such as ‘reach your potential, ‘find your purpose’, ‘self-actualization’, ‘the here and now’, ‘experiencing versus thinking’, have perpetuated so deeply into mainstream parlance that the value, as witnessed by those who researched this field in detail, has been diluted.

These words no longer have value, only the context within which they are sold and used has any perceived value.  Their overuse has cheapened them, and without depth, without time, without exposure to potential strain, these words extend our failure to understand their power and simply generate a superficial, easily understood message that is way off track from the original intention.

We should be focused on the search for truth, for “…to will one thing” (kierkegard 1846) doesn’t only evoke the will of God, but challenges us to seek our calling, our purpose if you like, and to muster the strength to pursue it to the end of life.  Perhaps, even the phrase, ‘to look after number one’ isn’t an excuse for selfishness, more of a command to focus on fulfilling that singularly most omnipotent, yet mostly repressed, direction in our lives.

A paradox exists, however, today that is increasingly taking us down the wrong path.  The more we focus on individuality, and I’m thinking employee name badges, brand separation, ‘mix ‘n match’, customer modifications, ‘trivial differences’ Fromm calls them, and you’ll be able to think of many more, we are creating an illusion of individuality.  For, even though we give an employee a name badge, we expect them to conform to the corporate identify, the organisational values, mission and character, we don’t give them the badge and with it say, over to you!

Let us turn our attention to Fromm’s suggestions, the ‘factors’ if you like, which aim to support well-being.

‘Over specialization’ – Mindful to remain within the parameters of what is safe, on our projects, we aim to give as much responsibility to participants as possible, increasing their feeling of being in control.  So, when performing an activity such as digging a trench, yes, we do have a quiet word when someone is sitting on the edge, and, of course, we highlight any risk to whatever, if anything, lies hidden beneath the trowel.  However, we encourage participants to find ways that work for them.  After all, with an effort to be inclusive and to welcome people to our sites for whom heritage remains anathema, if we close our ears and eyes to different ways of doing things, how do we learn from others? Our flatlined hierarchy of staff helps with this.

‘Social’ – By welcoming people from many different backgrounds, students, professionals, disadvantaged, social-isolated and vulnerable, and by focusing on a common task, we see a breakdown of social and hierarchical barriers.  We build from within and achieve excellence through human relationships.  The project, the tasks, the work, if you like, becomes ‘social’ and those who are qualified try not to stand over a participant like an employer.  Building a ‘society’ is key, the task is a secondary concern.  Additionally, it is through learning about others that we learn more, and understand more, about ourselves.  A sense of selfhood is derived not only from the intrapsychic but through the interplay between ourselves and others.

‘Aufmerksamkeit’, or ‘awareness’ –  Changes in one’s routine, new experiences, getting out of our normal situation increases awareness of our own behaviours, responses, feelings and moods.  In other words, our self-awareness increases, both at a conscious and subconscious level.  Its about peeling back the layers, not only of mud and sand but those of our own minds.

‘Facing facts’ – We discussed earlier the risks faced when our ability of critical thought is diminished.  Heritage work has a heavy emphasis on fact.  Yes, there is healthy conjecture and discussion when one finds an unknown object, all part of the socialising, sharing experience, but we research, talk to experts and learn to wait before making grandiose statements about what we have, or have not found.  Much effort goes into avoiding ‘fake news’!

‘Concentration’ – With the rapidity and quantity of information we absorb and filter constantly, we are being trained to not concentrate.  From advertisements on television, the radio and internet, cookie downloads, passwords and tannoy announcements, our focus is constantly being interrupted.   Its hard today to fully absorb oneself in many activities and we have become so conditioned that we don’t even bother to try any more.  We scroll through twitter, rarely clicking links to read more.  More often than not we’re content to say, ‘Just give me the headline’, rather than let me read, digest, think about it, cross-reference, see what someone with a different perspective says and come to my own conclusions.  I know that the argument to defend this way of life centres around time availability, and I would like to think that Fromm would say that he is not aiming to judge or condemn, merely to suggest a healthier alternative.  We have taken multitasking to the max.

We tweet and eat, perhaps we could call it ‘tweating’, we talk to someone in front of us and WhatsApp someone else at the same time.  When we’re waiting for a meeting to start, or a train to arrive, we rarely sit and do nothing, we read coffee stained copies of free papers and thumb through messages or play game on our phones, we rarely stop and just be.  But why not? Its, the business of busyness.  We find concentrating now exhausting, but actually quite the opposite is true and we see this during our fieldwork.  We see physical effort and concentration produces energy, like human dynamos, and people report sleeping better and feeling less mentally tired.  On digs, we sit still.  We contemplate, we perambulate, we focus on tiny details, a fragment of pottery, a splinter of bone.  It’s a clear example of ‘mindfulness’, focusing one’s full concentration on what you are doing at one specific moment in time.  Immersing yourself fully within the activity, without the mind forever wandering to more stressful thoughts, the mortgage, one’s health, relationships, money.

Our ancestors knew about mindfulness and benefited from its being aligned to an awakening of the senses.  Our ancestors further used their senses to survive.  To listen and hear the sabre tooth tiger, to observe the slightest physical movement alerting us to the threat of tribal attack.  We used to ‘be’ in a moment for the moment’s sake.  To move from ‘animal’ to ‘human’ existence is a mechanism for freedom.  Senses that were activated through necessity born often from a passive centre, where we are driven to an act, as opposed to actively sensing, enlivened by productivity and creativity.  Fromm specifically gives an example of touching the oldest clay vessels or giving our self fully to the moment of looking at 30,000-year-old cave paintings.

‘Automation’ is “a gift”, but only if we use our free time to apply ourselves to other creative tasks.  Technology has watered down the ‘no pain, no gain’ belief and, indeed, opportunity for humans to push themselves physically.  This has freed us up, as we were told in the 1970s with the more widespread use of computers, to engage in more leisure pursuits.  However, this freedom can only be of benefit to our health if we pursue creative tasks beyond the mundane.  The exact opposite of what we were promised has occurred, for the time taken for tasks to be taken over by machines has not been long enough for us to discover other things to do and we have become lazy.  We are encouraged to do all we can to make our lives easier. Visit a shop or buy online and have someone deliver to your house? Look up a word in a dictionary or use predictive text? Add up in your head or use the calculator on your phone? There’s so much more! How we use, and rely on, technology to make our lives easier is contributing to us shutting down our ability to think.

‘Antiauthoritarianism’ – Fromm elaborates on the evolving journey of what it is to be free.  From subservience to people, such as Kings, through submission to organisations, the institutions, to reliance on technology.  He realises an often unconscious paradox, particularly of western democracies, that of being enslaved as free people.  We have created an easily accessible, marketed and idealistic ‘freedom’ gained through the easy acquisition of sex, addictive behaviours and synthetic stimulants.

Hunger for such freedom isn’t satisfied by a thought that we may eat later, or a reminder that really it wasn’t that long ago that we had our last meal, but, like the snack between meals, desire hits us with such strength of feeling that we need to satisfy ourselves instantaneously.  Machines are perfect partners for this desire.  From our phones, we can instantly order food and, yes, even drugs and sex.  But this sort of ‘freedom’ is merely a level of short-term escapism rooted primarily on pleasure rather than happiness.  Archaeology doesn’t offer this quick-fix immediacy.  It’s slow, methodical, and often reveals absolutely nothing and, at such moments, we appreciate even more how light still shines on the often more hidden rewards.

‘Creativity’, imagining, observing, thinking.  The people we study through heritage-based projects were universally more creative people and it follows that passive is the consumer, active is the artisan, artist, skilled worker.  Instead of homogenised, generic, disposable products, our ancestors demonstrated an aesthetic appreciation and would take great pride in producing locally unique designs and styles.  Artistically and philosophically, ancient people were numbered 100 to 1 in having and living these attributes, behaviours and characteristics, whereas today, we’re looking at one in a hundred.  Artefacts were made with more care, feeling, thought, distinction and more immersion in the activity. More often than not, the manufacturer would complete the whole process, from design to manufacture.  This is seen in what archaeologists find today.  People were involved in singing, dancing, going to church and story-telling, all culturally rich and fully engaging activities.  Much research has recently revealed how culturally rich activities are beneficial to one’s health.  What we had in life was mainly a result of our own doing, creating, thinking and being rather than someone else doing it all for us.  The goal, in those days, for the individual was not the acquisition of things, but, “the productive use of his faculties and the enjoyment of being”.

When working in the field, yes, of course, technology is utilised, but it doesn’t take over.  Participants aren’t glued to their phones (not just because coverage in the field is often poor!). They use tools that haven’t changed much for centuries, they tune into nature.

There are risks, too.  We are all aware of the everyday health and safety concerns, but we need also to alert ourselves to risks of a more fundamental nature, besides those of personal safety which we have covered in another blog.  Throughout his working life, Fromm identified a high number of people who ‘pretended’ to wish to secure change in their lives.  Of course they wished to rid themselves of the negative feelings they experienced but without having to go through the inseparable pain needed to effect real transformation.  There exists a belief in ‘salvation by talking’, and Fromm stresses that, without the individual embracing a period of pain and anxiety, growth cannot occur.  Cricket fans may recall the tie of the I Zingari club, three stripes, black, red and gold,  representing the steps out of the darkness, through the fire and into the light beyond.

To become self-aware takes considerable bravery and effort, and it’s an experience best achieved by oneself, with help, rather than something you should have dictated to you.  As a possible cure to a range of issues such as anxiety, depression or lack of motivation, self-awareness, in Fromm’s time, was not as popular as he thought it should be, especially within the field of psychoanalysis.  Labels of ‘patient’ and ‘professional’ immediately put the client into a passive, back-seat state.  Another reason why self-analysis isn’t universally popular, even today, is because its hard to do.  “…for if salvation lay ready to hand and could be discovered without great labour, how could it be possible that it should be neglected by almost everybody?” (Spinoza 1677).

The group dynamic of community projects is important to consider.  We’ll look deeper into this later, but from Fromm’s perspective, an important factor to the generation of unity, cohesion and happiness is to remember that if members of a group are all suffering from a collective defect, it, and its values, will become normalised within the group.  That thought has massive implications for community project planning, especially those that aim, as we do to improve well-being and in our case specifically, to use projects for personal development activities, and is a reason why we don’t cater for individual demographic groups, we mix people up.

We have understood that in modern life, we don’t often see the results of our work, the conveyor belt, fragmented, mentality precludes us from the bigger, more strategic sight and ensuing results.  This is something that we need to be mindful of when organising community projects, so as to avoid a situation where participants don’t understand how their often narrow focus of work affects the whole.

Archaeology and heritage projects can provide the right environment for Fromm’s requirements for well-being to be met.  Participants can spend time away from those aspects of modern life which are damaging to our health.  Activities, both of a heritage specific and social nature experienced within community projects can be shaped to improve the well-being of participants as outlined within this text.  In its simplest form, it is about allowing participants to feel comfortable and trusting enough to be creative, artistic, imaginative, social, in control, connected to nature, to become an active participant rather than a passive outsider; to rid oneself of selfishness and narcissism, to be tolerant of fear, to embrace the uneasiness of change; to free oneself from the domination of technology, to slow things down, to reacquaint oneself with who we are and to remember that machines are designed to be perfect, people are not, it’s ok to take a few wrong steps on such an important journey!

New experiences within the heritage and archaeological sectors can be a catalyst to generate the motivation to continue along the path of your choosing.  Well-being, functioning as a person, not as an instrument, can be improved and a sense of identify can become clearer.  As we move from the consumer to the creator, from the owner to the nomad, from the passive to the active, we move from that place where “I am what I have” to one where “I am what I do”.

Nicholas Harrison helps people to become more self-aware to help improve their well-being and personal development. He is a university leadership coach, runs his own consultancy and founded the charity, Soldier On!, which helps disadvantaged and marginalised people to secure happier and more independent futures, through participating in archaeology and heritage projects. This article aims to reflect some of the views of Erich Fromm within a heritage setting and are therefore not the author’s opinion.  Please see and

Header Image – Erich Fromm

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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 8,000 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.

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