Being useless

First of all, something from XKCD that echoes my sentiments:

The mouse-over text for this panel goes like this: “The only things you HAVE to know are how to make enough of a living to stay alive and how to get your taxes done. All the fun parts of life are optional.” For some reason, this part of life is completely overlooked when trying to describe what makes an ideal human being. We seem to have internalized a fact of dubious validity that if one is useless, then it is a bad thing. Good is equated with useful (to someone/thing) and bad with useless.

It is undoubtedly true that since we live in the company of other humans, and all of us are trying to prop up a gigantic structure called society, that we need to work with each other, and for each other. It is therefore only fair that we are rewarded when we do our part, and are useful to others. Only thieves and politicians seem to think otherwise, and also those who beg and borrow without ever trying to find something useful to do. But somehow, somewhere, the fact “you need to be useful to survive” gets transformed into “you survive to be useful”.

As a personal ethic, to live in the service of others is undoubtedly a very noble thing. But problems arise when everything is judged by its utility to yourself or to society. By this standard, bureaucrats (the earnest ones anyway) are useful and painters useless. Farmers are useful and folk singers useless. If we keep eliminating useless people and things from society, then, like the cartoon says, life would not be very much fun indeed. Also, it is very easy to apply double standards: A sports person who has spent his entire life thinking about himself, his body and his technique becomes a hero if he wins a medal, though his actual contribution to society is similar to that of an orchid to a forest.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the word ‘useful’ itself has different meanings at different points in history. It is socially defined and it defines ‘The Box’ within which society operates. People of science were not only considered useless but even dangerous a few hundred years ago. Nowadays they are worshipped as saviours of humanity. Therefore, some who is very useful and maybe even invaluable at a particular point in history is so because she operates completely within ‘The Box’, and is happy doing so. If everyone thinking outside ‘The Box’  are eliminated, civilisations will stagnate and die out.

It is therefore important that society tolerates useless elements like beggars and philosophers. They may be parasites, but as long as they don’t suck the life-blood out of the society, like politicians, they should be allowed to survive and persist. They may harbour ideas or examples of ways of living that may lead the way for future generations, or their ideas may be eternally useless. But being different, being useless requires conviction and courage (however misplaced), both of which are rare qualities in society.

At a more personal level, being useful implies leading a life that is mainly governed by the needs of others. As experience will inevitably show, the ‘others’ are a mix of deserving and undeserving people, and you have no control over which kind you end up serving. It a very rare set of people who can truthfully say that they serve only deserving people. Also, people and things have values that are not included in their utility: beauty, inspiration, serenity — these are also things that we as a society must value, and seeing how things are progressing, maybe value more that brute utility. Being useless is something that is brainwashed out of us very early on, maybe it is time we re-learn what it feels like!

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