Friday, November 25, 2011
Useful to Be Useless
Is it better to be useful or useless? I can’t decide, and that’s a problem. I have the age-old drive to “do something” with my life. I feel compelled to be practical, to pursue realistic goals, and to turn my skills toward earning money or helping people. Those goals allow me to justify my existence. But I also feel the strong tug of uselessness. I enjoy creating for no purpose and thinking for its own sake. I could be a happy lay-about. But always that other drive to please people, to fill my resume, to prove my worth, to show my team spirit – that residual sociability keeps me from wandering away entirely.
Of course, there are ways to escape the world. I had a friend in college who purposely sauntered through the halls mumbling to himself, because he didn’t want anyone to think of him as useful. He wanted only to read and study, and the surest way of guarding his solitude was to appear incompetent or unhinged. In the long run, the plan failed. Today this friend is one of the busiest people I know. His sense of social responsibility proved too powerful.
Because I find myself torn between these two possibilities, I may be able to explain to you the value of uselessness, the position occupied by artists, philosophers, babies, and comedians. We are suspicious of artists and philosophers. The only reason we don’t feel the same about babies and comedians is that we don’t take them seriously. Babies can’t help belonging to the club of uselessness, but they provide an instructive example. Why does a laughing baby fill us with joy? It is because the baby is so purely inspired. In her delight, she has no agenda, no concern. A happy baby is idle, purposeless, and completely alive. She shows us how to relax our minds, which is the first step toward inner peace and creativity. We laugh with her, and participate in her joy, but we ignore what she tells us about ourselves.
To take an example from the adult world, a philosopher is also useless, by design. And obviously, I don’t mean the typical American philosophy professor, who is basically a mechanic of thought, a logician and a scholar. That sort of “philosopher” justifies his existence by being useful, by solving practical problems. He makes thinking serve a worldly purpose. But the lover of wisdom, the philosopher in the original sense, is like the poet or the comedian, in that he doesn’t serve, he doesn’t seek any practical end. He is faithful to a kind of knowing that transcends usefulness, calling us back to the first and most difficult questions, questions that can’t be answered once and for all. Even if he arrives at answers, they aren’t useful in the usual sense.
At college, we teach “critical thinking,” which is a skill, involving mastery of logical techniques. And that’s good. That’s useful. But the relationship between critical thinking and philosophy is like the relationship between the principles of design and the wonder of imaginative art. One is governed by rules; the other is only itself when it surpasses all preconceived rules. And how do you teach that? How does the rule-bound adult learn to think – and to love thinking for its own sake? How can the yoga student learn to breathe like a baby? It’s all about giving up on usefulness. The way of uselessness is the hardest path in the world to follow, precisely because it is endless, starting and ending where you are standing now.
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