BREATHING IN and out is important, of course, but beyond that Margaret Mead was puzzled what to do with her life.

Politics attracted her; so did writing.

But then life is too short to waste it, so she gave up politics, preferring more "long-range" values and benefits, as she said in a hot film viewed by a reporter this week. And writing would not do, since it is the cruelest of trades. Only the superstars survive the test of print, so she decided against writing, and this may be the place to remark that Mead said beastly things from time to time. True, of course. But then somebody has to keep the parakeets supplied.

Science. Ah, that's it, she reflected. You don't have to have any particular gifts for science. However modest your equipment, you can make a contribution, she said with the cameras on her.

Somebody, after all, has to count how many tails there are on a mouse, in experimental work.

She went to the ends of the earth to see the savages, and was among the first to convince us our primary need is to learn, not to teach, and thanks to her the man in the street for the first time began to know what anthropology is. She acknowledged her role as a popularizer of science, in the film, and gloried in it.

She went to Samoa, which was perfect for her project of inquiring whether adolescence is as swful everywhere as if is here. It was Margaret Mead, not Dorothy Lamour, that resolved two generations of Americans to chuck it and go to the South Seas.

Always, she said, she had the most luck ever heard of. Time after time, the garden was in full bloom when she arrived, so to speak.

But if it had not been, she would have told us all about winter, and we would still say, "How lucky it was dead winter with nothing blooming."

As she says in a splendid film, "Reflections," if she had not found A, she might have found B, and that might have been equally fortuitous.

This week Wilton S. Dillon, an old and intimate friend of Mead's, showed two films to the Smithsonian Institution staff, about Mead. Her "New Guinea Journal" was shot in 1967 for National Educational Television and "Reflections" was shot in 1975 for the United States Information Agency, now reorganized as the International Communication Agency.

I attended, illegally no doubt, since USIA films may not be shown in this country except to scholars having a legitimate interest in them.

As a matter of fact, Michael Pistor of the ICA said it would take a special act of Congress to spring the Mead film, noting that eight earlier films had been distributed in America after specific congressional authority to do so. (The ones on the Kennedy funeral, on Aron Copland, on the Bicentennial, etc., were among them.)

Dillon, who is director of the Smithsonian's symposia and seminars, and president of the Institute for Intercultural Studies (New York), said the American Academy for the Advancement of Science is considering asking Congress to free the Tim White "Reflections" film for public viewing, and he himself has talked with Sen. Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.) about this. So we shall see.

Not that snyone will care, but I suppose any brave reporter who heard of the showing and viewed the film, is liable to be imprisoned.

It is a sound law, that the government cannot be allowed to feed its propaganda films to Americans, and if an unauthorized American views such a film in America, it is obly fitting he should go to jail.

Well, one can be hanged for worse.

Mead said motherhood did not help her understand maternal behavior. She sent her daughter films she had taken when the daughter was wee. Whe thought it would help the daughter who wa herself now a mother. But the daughter said only that she thought her own baby was nicer than the baby in the Mead film.

Which goes to show, Mead said, that judgment is not always improved by personal experience.

She was one of the first to notice something new in the "generation gap," and thought this had to do with The Bomb. For the first time, all life can be killed.

There is a great difference, she thought, between knowing (as people have always known) that millions can be killed, and knowing that all life may die. She looked straight out from the screen as she said it, not letting you duck.

She is one of the few older citizens (she was born in 1901 and died last fall) who welcomed change. She loved patterns, she loved bits and pieces within patterns, and she loved a particular kind of sophistication:

She noticed that "primitive" people sometimes became more sophisticated than "civilized" people after they encountered a new style.

There they were, fresh from the Stone Age, and here came purified water, GIs, corned beef hash and similar wonders. They saw. They digested.

As a result they sometimes became better at perceiving the range of human interactions than some of us. Many Americans were quite capable of escaping change:

Unlike primitive people, many here salied right through the Beatles, Hiroshima, the U-2, Burger King, television, Etc., without being touched by any of them; insulated in our old ways, though the world has changed.

When she went to Samoa in 1927, they had a post-Stone Age world, and she had a pre-Concorde world, but now, she said, they live in the same world, so rapid has been the revolution of life in Samoa or the Admiralties or Papua New Guinea.

Dillon once said of Mead that "she could shift scale, from the microscosm to the macrocosm. She could take a bit or piece and fit it into a cosmos. Her scope and ability in dealing with scale is where she left most others behind."

In the films I saw Mead returning to an island 40 years after her first visits.

Saw her shake the hands, embrace the shoulders, meet the eyes. Saw her watch with an old woman dying, saw her at the funeral, saw her at the birth of a child, saw her at an island feast (wearing, so help me God, wht looked like an emerald neckhelp me God, what looked like an emerald necklace) and at a school where the small savages were learning English.

An old man said she would not return (he was right) any more, and there were farewells. After so many years, during which two worlds became one.

The line bent into a circle, the pattern was complete, and with how great delicacy did Mead, for her part, and the islanders, for theirs, accept this without insisting on the sadness of it.

Mead walked out on the log that would take her to her carved boat -- what Homer called the beaked ships and Achilles called the crowned ships.

Someone once said Miss Mead resembled a washing machine turned to March, and a Smighsonian fellow said she was very like a tremendous turtle with a sun hat.

Out she marched to the outrigger, supported left and right by the islanders. We shall not falter, as Churchill said, nor fail.

She got in boat. Waved.

Had we not seen her in the great moments of virth and death, unobtrusive, but watching and supporting? As a fine actress may have no line to speak in a certain scene, yet temains central to the action.

The wild sea bank, the uncertain footing, and Mead with a willow (or whatever that forked stick was made of) in her hand, and the great paw waving to waft her love.

Physicists are the worst snobs, she said in the film, but then all the sciences snoot at the science slightly younger than itself, as if the mantle could not fall on anybody whose forbears are not pickled in the Royal Society.

And yet what is science but humility before the drudgery of observing carefully, again and again, and recording faithfully? And thinking, if the thought be possible.

She may have been wrong sometimes.

"I am going to beat this goddam thing," she said of her cancer, to a friend. It was interfering with her year's work and was not to be tolerated.

There was a period in America in which you had to "get into" whatever it was you were reporting.

Thus psychiatrists rassled around in the shower with their patients, and anthropolotists ate missionaries with the rest of the village, and reporters got chummy with politicians and freaks, all this to report the better.

And yet, as Mead pointed out, one does not really need to be a mother. She herself went so far as to take along little cartridges that made fizz water for her scotch and soca, not that this was shown in the films, because she understood the limits of taro and tom-toms and did not deceive herself into thinking she was something other than a modern American woman. Bound to her own culture.

The lights went on and the lady staffers mopped their eyes, the image of Dido still in their eyes.

This was at the Freer Gallery's auditorium.

Some went to view the standing T'ang bodhissatva in that museum before getting on with their day, since it is probably the most beautiful object in the city, and while you're down there you might as well kill two birds with one stone.

The polychrome and gilt is all worn off. But the bones, the mass, the elegance is there. In some lights, the spit and image of Margaret Mead.