On the Usefulness of Uselessness


(SU-LI Hung) "Oak Tree Early Spring" oil on canvas. (Image sourced from Google.)

In one of the essays from his book Dialogues at One Inch Above the Ground, James Heisig shares a story from the Chuang-tsu to exemplify the Buddhist notion of the “usefulness of being useless.” The story—or at least the portion of it that I want to highlight—goes this way:

. . . a certain master carpenter named Stone and his apprentice . . . chanced to pass by a gigantic oak tree standing by a local village shrine. The young apprentice stopped short and stood aghast at the towering majesty of the tree, whose trunk he thought must measure a hundred spans in girth, and whose branches were so immense that at least ten of them could be carved into boats. But the carpenter Stone just stalked off ahead without so much as giving the tree a second glance. Catching his master up, the apprentice inquired why he should have shunned such a chance for timber, more splendid than any he had seen since taking up his axe.

“Stop it!” the master rebuked him. “The tree is useless. A boat made from it would sink, a coffin would soon rot, a tool would split, a door would ooze sap, and a beam would have termites. It is worthless timber and is of no use to us. That is why it has reached such a ripe old age.

Why I shared this story is because it’s one more tool I can add to a steadily-growing arsenal I resort to whenever I have my usual bouts of productivity anxiety.

Like the grand old tree in the story, so many of life’s greatest pleasures—art, beauty, music, play—have frankly no utility, but that hasn’t prevented the language of utility from invading their domains. These are then usually translated into activities of leisure—which means that their utility lies in a calculated non-utility that allows the working organism to rest—thereby allowing it to prolong or enhance its overall working life through the revitalization of physical energy or the rejuvenation of mental capacity—or if not to rest, to still produce, even if the productions have no directly utilitarian value. Those who manage to valiantly resist this despotic ethic have to pay for their defiance by carrying the burden of a vague and generalized sense of anxiety and guilt. Those who walk away with untroubled consciences do so only because they know that they’ve already paid the bill (the language of those who “deserve a rest”) or because they know they can indefinitely postpone it (the language of those whose rest depends on others’ labor). In either case, the vocabulary of a utilitarian calculus remains.

But what if—and what a truly radical notion it would be—what if doing nothing could be valued as an activity in its own right? Not as a precursor to more valuable activity, not as a reward for already completed activity, not as a pause between ill-scheduled activity, but just activity?

Heavens, I can’t even wrap my head around it.

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