Striving to be useless

What is our worth, our value? How do we know we are doing the right thing?

Notice the subtle but treacherous shift from the first to the second question. The metaphor of worthiness is based on that of worth: something that can be exchanged for something else. That of value should be even more blatant, but the monetary underpinning has long ago been subsumed by the moral. In other words, we make a fundamental mistake in how we ask the question. We frame meaning and purpose in terms exchange: what are we worth to someone else? what use can they make of us? for what can we be traded? We strive to be means, never an end.

Even the second question falls short in terms of emphasis. Is it more important to do or to be? There is no way to ultimately separate the two, but an accent is always placed on one or the other, and most of Western thought places it on the former. Yet this seems backwards to me.

Book one of the Zhuangzi ends with a discussion of the Tree of Heaven—a tree whose trunk is so gnarled that it cannot be measured, and whose branches are so knotted and twisted that a carpenter’s tools are useless. Book four ends with three more stories of useless trees. One even appears to Carpenter Shi in a dream and rebukes him. Its argument is both simple and impenetrable: the only reason it has survived is precisely because of its uselessness:

What other trees will you compare me with? Ornamental trees? Hawthorne, pear trees, orange trees, citrus trees, gourds or other fruit trees? When their fruits are ripe, they are knocked down and thrown into the dust. Their large branches are broken and the smaller ones are torn away. Their usefulness makes life bitter to them; they cannot live out the years heaven has given them and are cut off in the middle of their time. They bring their destruction on themselves. So it is with all things. I have strived to be useless for a long while.

What would it look like to simply be, to rest in what we are, to let life unfold? Perhaps we are not terribly useful to most people. Perhaps life would be better if we accepted that.

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