What’s the Use?

There is a story about a bunch of trees on a hillside, and all of them are cut down except one that is so old and gnarled it’s not useful for anything. Despite the wisdom of this story, I recently discovered I’d rather spend a lifetime thinking M&Ms were the pinnacle of chocolate-dom than have people consider me useless.

gnarled pine tree in sand
Photo by Dan Mahr. Used under Creative Commons License.

This idea of usefulness did not come from me but from someone in a dialogue group I attend regularly. In this group, we often experiment with interrupting something we habitually do, and my reaction to the possibility of not being useful to people was panic. Why would anyone like me if I no longer did the things they counted on me for?

I suspect the only human beings who don’t worry about their usefulness are kids lucky enough  to be raised in a loving family that has the means to provide for them. Even then, the time to enjoy a state of uselessness is brief.

We start training our children to be useful early in their lives, as soon as they are able to put away their own toys. Then we give them small chores to do and ask them to carry their own backpacks at the airport.

It’s not unreasonable training. We’re social creatures, and we’re teaching our kids how to get along in society, how to become valued and integrated members of the tribe.

I wonder, though, if part of what Jesus meant when he counseled us to be like little children was to put down our usefulness occasionally, to give ourselves some time and space to be undefined, to allow the possibility of being valuable for some other reason than our contributions to family, friends, society. Parents don’t, after all, love their children because of their ability to do the dishes; they love them simply because they are who they are.

In the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie explains to one of the other children that the great thing about candy is that, “Candy doesn’t have to have a point. That’s why it’s candy.”

It might be that we don’t have to have so much of a point as we think we do.

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