On Being Useful

8 Apr

I often worry about being useful.

Especially these days, when I feel like I’m drowning in a sea of bad moods and even the most basic daily activities are a struggle to complete. The truth is that for this past month I’ve barely been able to take care of myself, let alone do things like wash the dishes or give my kid a bath or think up genius words to write. For most of this year so far I have been the opposite of useful, and that’s been frightening and disorienting. I am so accustomed to being the unstoppably active one, the go-getter, to do-er of things that I just don’t know what to make of myself right now. All that I know is that I am not useful, either to myself or to anyone else.

I don’t just mean in a general sense, like a broad what-am-I-doing-with-my-life sort of thing, but rather an exhaustive catalogue of every little thing that I accomplish in a day. I worry about what I should be doing at any particular moment, and even times of rest are evaluated by what and how much they are accomplishing. For example, if I spend half an hour sitting in a coffee shop reading my book, then I tally that up as thirty minutes of preparing myself for the rest of the day, or thirty minutes longer that I will be able to work that night, or thirty minutes of “getting better.” I’m told that focussing on myself will help me get better, as if I don’t spend all of my time already mired in the stupid fucking mess that is my pathetic self. At least being useful helps me forget myself, even just briefly.

I’m encouraged by many people – by doctors, therapists, friends and family – to think that doing pleasurable things is part of the cure for for what ails me. And I know that these people have good intentions, and I know that they only want me to relax and be happy, but the truth is that telling me this only results in me feeling that experiencing pleasure is yet another thing that I have to check off my list. Pleasure is not something to achieve in and of itself, but rather a means to an end – it’s a way to fix my broken brain, or a way to create or maintain a relationship with someone else, or else just a way to swing from one moment to another so that I can make it through the day. On my worst days, the idea of pleasure seems like little more than work. And if I’m going to work, then why not be useful?

I worry about how much love I will lose if I am not useful. If I am not constantly on the move, if I am not always somehow working towards something important, if I am not proving my worth at every chance that I get, then how will I convince people that they ought to keep me around? Surely my value to them depends solely on my ability to keep the conversation going, to offer whatever help I can, to soothe hurt feelings or give encouragement or else plan interesting activities. Surely if I were to sit there and let my face go slack, if I were to let every little bit of happiness, eagerness, optimism, charm, sweetness or whatever else it is that I think people want from me drain out of my expression, then everyone would turn and run. Surely if I were to let anyone see my true self, the self that doubts and is sometimes afraid and sometimes clueless about what to do, then no one would love me. What else, other than my usefulness, do I have to offer?

I’ve been wondering lately if this desire to be useful is a gendered trait. The men that I know don’t seem to have any trouble kicking back and spending an hour or two watching a movie or playing guitar or reading a book. It seems to be mainly the women that I know who are constantly bustling about, washing a dish here or tidying a room there. The men seem much more capable of just being, whereas the women seem much more intent on justifying why they should be allowed to be. And when these women are sick or hurt or otherwise unable to fulfill what they see as their duty, they are the first to apologize to everyone around them for how useless they are. Perhaps there’s a part of us that believes that if we want to have it all, then we need to do it all, if only to convince the world that we’re capable enough for this.

Sometimes the feeling of not being useful brushes uncomfortably close to what we imagine female frailty might feel like. And that is the last thing that we want.

But the truth is that equality lies not in our ability to tackle everything, but rather in our ability to share responsibility. And feminism doesn’t just depend on women enthusiastically tackling every issue that comes their way in an effort to fix the gender gap; it also depends on our being able to sit with ourselves, to accept ourselves as we are in that moment rather than constantly looking for areas of improvement. And none of this is to say that we should give up or try to stop bettering ourselves and the world around us, but rather that if every single goddamn moment of every day has to be a fight in one way or another, then what are we fighting for? If we are fighting for equality, then we are also fighting for the right to sometimes take time for ourselves, time that might otherwise be employed doing something practical.

And if I don’t ever learn how to sit with myself, if I don’t ever learn to love myself even just enough to be present in my own body with my own thoughts, then I’m never going to get better. Yes, doing useful things distracts me from how I feel, but at the end of the day I always have to come back to myself. And no matter how much I feel that I’ve accomplished, if I can’t comfortably live in my own skin then it’s hard to feel as if I’m succeeding.

The fact is that I don’t always need to be useful.

I don’t need to fill every second of my day with activities that prove my value in this world. I am not on trial; I am not expected to prove my worthiness of being able to occupy space. My grandmother was wrong – idle hands are not the devil’s playthings. Sometimes they are just resting. Sometimes they are enjoying themselves. Sometimes they exist in the space between one thing and another, and the truth is that they have every right to do that.


25 Responses to “On Being Useful”

  1. Elizabeth Hawksworth April 8, 2014 at 11:29 pm #

    I’ve had to teach myself that life is not measured in billable hours that must be filled at all costs. I’m still learning, but the “MUST BE USEFUL ALL THE TIME” feeling is less pervasive. Love you ❤

  2. girlseule April 8, 2014 at 11:38 pm #

    I related to this. I usually work 2-3 days a week, so on the days I am not at work I feel I should be doing something, cleaning, writing, working on my course. I sometimes end up just being busy and not actually getting much done anyway. I try and remind myself that it is ok to ride my bike to a cafe and read my fiction book for awhile.

  3. Patrick M April 8, 2014 at 11:55 pm #

    Having trouble reading the whole thing at once (Yay ADHD!), but I can tell you that as a cis-male, I definitely experience this usefulness worry… Whether I’m a minority or not, Iunno.

  4. defeatingpain April 9, 2014 at 12:11 am #

    i completely suffer from this, compounded by stupid frailty of corporeal being. Sometimes this drive is a good thing, it keeps me going even when I am at my lowest. But sometimes at my lowest, it drives me lower because I wasn’t useful (or am not at that time). I still struggle with it, and one thing I was told really helps. Forgive yourself, we can’t be perfect all the time. I am trying to remember this, but …you know how it goes, right?

  5. susieq777 April 9, 2014 at 12:26 am #

    Oh my. You have squirmed yourself into my brain and into my guts and spewed me out onto the page.

    My first thought on reading this was, “Oh! So is this worrying about being useful an anxiety-related thing, do you think?”

    Oh, but then, of course it is. I mean, I feel this in myself. I can see it. Those days where I find some space to be chilled, and the world flowers open and all the possibilities rush in, those days it is perfectly acceptable to play around with brushes and paint even though I’m 43 and I’m not earning hardly any money and I feel like such an incomprehensible waste of fucking space.

    And it’s funny because often I’ve got to this more spacious way of being because yesterday I finished writing an essay which has bits in it that I love, or finished writing a short story. It is so hard to get to that space of allowing myself to do these creative things that make my life worthwhile. I strive so hard to get past all of that relentless fucking left-brain rational, logical and linear stuff – stuff that is perfectly fine in its place but which has bulged itself out into our society like a massive hemmarhoid. All of that cog stuff bulges out and tries to take over what it has no place taking over – the more comprehensive big picture stuff that is about meaning, and about making a more beautiful world (even though that sounds like such a wanky thing to say). It’s like I’m so fed up with being this small little cog in a giant wheel that I don’t even like but then whenever I try and break free of that I feel such massive guilt.

    So therefore I very much enjoyed your post and your sharing of how it is for you. I so understand it. It’s such a struggle to break out of anxiety. I am having a particularly good day, two days after the latest bout of suicidal ideation, and so I guess from here I feel positive and like, “Yes! We can break free! You can break free!” It’s just hard, hard, unpaid, unseen work.

  6. Shelley Schanfield April 9, 2014 at 12:35 am #

    Sometimes, it helps me to remember that if I’m doing something that relieves my suffering, like reading a really good book or writing or sitting in the sun or petting my cat, that it’s enough that I’m content, and not adding suffering to all the pain that’s already in the world.

    Helps me sometimes. Other times, not so much, but hey, it’s worth a try.



  7. welliswan April 9, 2014 at 2:51 am #

    There are surely exceptions–men who must be busy, useful bees, and women who can let things be–but I think you’re correct that there’s a gendered aspect to it. One need look no further than parenting, a milieu in which women are *still* essentially expected to become consummate, compulsive caregivers, at the expense of literally all other traits. And enough do, apparently, that media can bank on the assumption, with magazines and blogs telling us to “take a little me time”, in terms that state so clearly that the rest of our time, the whole of our time, *does not belong to us*, or winkingly lamenting our younger days when we had a life.

    I mean, parenting can be a consuming task, and can call for a lot of lifestyle adjustment, change, and growth, but just about no one expects fathers to be similarly absorbed utterly (to the detriment of men and women both, frankly).

    Anyway, this is so familiar a feeling to me. I am a single mother who nonetheless cooks any time people come over, even if they’re just dropping by, who has a dozen projects going at once, who makes care packages and writes letters and politics and petitions because I HAVE TO TAKE CARE OF PEOPLE. I know that that’s not true, but I don’t know how to *understand* that it’s not, and meanwhile I practically get hives when anyone cares for me, or else break down in sobs that are one part anxiety and one part relief.

    And when I’m depressed, and my house gets dingy and grim, and my kids are sticky and grubby, and just the thought of turning on the oven or even picking up a pencil feels exhausting and unmanageable, I feel my worth extinguished, utterly. I don’t know how to ask for things, and I don’t know how to accept them, and I feel–irrationally but certainly–that no one could possibly have any use for me at all.

    I want to close this with some sparkling insight, but I’ve got nothing. It’s just so much shit.

  8. jgroeber April 9, 2014 at 3:15 am #

    I just posted “Mama lost her brain again…” in which I recount every way I’ve screwed up because I’m going, going, going three directions at once, and I also read a similar post today from Miss Fanny P where she sounds utterly overwhelmed. I realize that MFP and I have both somehow hit the next stage of exactly what you’re talking about. I blame it on motherhood, but really, I was never enough when I sat still. Not when I was in high school or college or beyond. I run because it’s the most “still” I can be (which is to say, alone with myself) that I can stand. And for the record, I do think it’s gendered, this thing about worth and achievement and helping, care-giving, sparkling. Men have their own achievement race, but it seems different, more attainable, maybe more still? I’m not sure I have the answer, but reading it from your perspective was enlightening. Just another layer of the truth. Thank you.

  9. mashiaradream April 9, 2014 at 8:17 am #

    I think the need to be useful is something that is learned, not something that is biologically gendered. My husband has it as much as I do. He has the experience of people abandoning him when he was younger and he linked it to his not being useful enough. What I will concede of course is that our society is structured in a way that allows more laid-back time to boys and placed higher usefulness standards on girls (do it all if you want to have it all). But that is also learned behaviour. If it jsut wasn’t so hard to un-learn it.

  10. MarinaSofia April 9, 2014 at 8:32 am #

    It’s possibly at least partly a gendered thing, but also a cultural thing. I notice those of an Anglo-Saxon or Calvinistic descent seem to feel that the devil finds work for idle hands… Having read Brigid Schulte’s book ‘Overwhelmed’, it struck me how much Americans view time as a scarce commodity which has to be filled up to the utmost, to improve body and mind, to move ahead, busy-busy or else you are just not trying hard enough. It starts with children (all those after-school activities), then students (who have to work to finance their studies), then employees (you have to be perceived to be busy, even if you’ve long since finished your work). And the leisure time is filled with gym, PTA, networking meetings and other such things. Or TV, which is another way of not having to spend any quiet, reflective time with our own selves.

  11. Toby April 9, 2014 at 10:54 am #

    Reblogged this on Speaker's Corner.

  12. sliceofgenius April 9, 2014 at 2:45 pm #

    I definitely understand the worry about being useful. I kind of defiantly cut my circle down to near non-existence only because I felt that they only looked for me when I was useful to them, to solve their problems, give them advise, mother them, serve as a shoulder to unburden themselves on and go about their lives. I’m the type who likes to be busy and doing things, but I definitely got over trying to be of service to the world because, when I’m sick, I have to get up and make my own chicken noodle soup. I’ve always run in small circles, but now I love being alone more than anything else, except for being with my kids.
    Thanks for the post!

  13. evelyneholingue April 9, 2014 at 3:32 pm #

    I tend to agree with you on women wanting to feel useful since I do share this trait of character. But more than wanting to be useful, I think we are more aware of the passing of time and want to make this time more valuable. I don’t necessary want to be useful for someone but use the time I get in a meaningful way. I want to end the day with the feeling of having lived it to its fullest. Thank you for sharing your feelings about this topic. And for your blog generally speaking.

  14. violetwisp April 9, 2014 at 3:48 pm #

    Although I don’t personally relate to anything you’ve said, you wrote it so well and I recognise those traits in a lot of people I see around me. I’m sure just hearing someone else say will be a big help to many.

  15. rvraiment April 9, 2014 at 6:42 pm #

    Our ‘first contact’. You feel you need to be useful because if you’re not useful people will stop loving you? That sounds to me like you’ve shared my experience of growing up and being too much around ‘qualified’ love. You’ve been given a sense that love has to be earned, even by those you yourself love without qualification.

    Anyone who suggests “I will love you if…” or “I will love you when…” is failing as a human being.

    My surviving child is a son, in his early twenties, subjectively and objectively handsome, and I love him. There is no kudos to me in that, it is simply a fact. It is also a fact that when he ‘lets me down’/fails to meet certain aspirations in certain ways – and they are only ever small ways – it makes no difference, can make no difference, to the love I have for him. Should he ‘let me down’ big time by becoming an addict, becoming abusive, becoming a thief, even killing someone, I will continue to love him, and I know I will continue to love him.

    There are people here responding to your words who love you, even if that word is not the one with which they would choose to characterize it. A total stranger, I am willing to love you – to care about what you say and feel, to listen, to try to help – and that is without you needing to do anything or give anything in return. And that willingness comes from a fact – distinctly not from a religious belief though Christianity holds it true – that you are my sister on this earth, that you are human and therefore matter, and are entitled to be loved without condition.

  16. O Mâtză April 9, 2014 at 8:24 pm #

    don’t you think you are a bit afraid of being rejected for not being useful? losing their love. But people don’t love us by how useful we are to them or by how happy we are. Have you ever not loved anyone for being useless or sad? Have you ever even thought of anyone as too useless or too sad to love?

    Also, here’s a lovely poem about inheritance and women.

    Stay strong, stay lovely 😀

  17. Kelsey Lynore April 10, 2014 at 3:25 am #

    It took me 33 years to realize that I don’t need to justify my existence to anyone for any reason. Let this song inspire: https://soundcloud.com/dasracist/09-i-dont-owe-nobody-shit. 🙂

  18. jacqueverse April 11, 2014 at 9:11 pm #

    My sister had a severe stroke at 45, in June. essentially a major brain injury

  19. jacqueverse April 11, 2014 at 9:12 pm #

    Oops- I hit reply too soon. I’ve fwd your blog to here, I think it will help her to know she’s not alone struggling. Thank you for your blog article.

  20. misswhoiusedtobe April 13, 2014 at 11:51 pm #

    Every single word of this was surely plucked straight out of my own head. Surely, surely!

    I recently moved in with my husband to a new country (a month ago), after a long period of separation. Because he has been in this country for two years now, he has sufficently settled in and has a job to go to everyday, while The Move being a sudden, just-do-it/give-it-another-shot decision on our part left me unemployed and looking for jobs. And boy do I over compensate for the fact that I am currently unemployed. Oh God, oh God, the mental agony! Scrubbing this, cleaning that, baking this, polishing that. Laundry, laundry, laundry. And this despite the fact that we have a maid come in everyday, but I would just rather do everything myself in order to just feel useful. I think it’s only after reading this that I realize how much damage I am inflicting on myself by doing all this. Not to undermine the importance of being gainfully employed, but I must work extra hard to remind myself that as long as I am trying my best to find a job, all I can really do is relax and allow myself to unwind every once in a while. Thank you, Anne!

  21. GeorgeZ April 14, 2014 at 10:57 pm #

    The women I know take time to relax. My mom frequently spends time with her friends and often takes a break to just lay back and relax. One good friend watches TV most evenings, reads novels, and we recently went for a walk. Another good friend watches TV, spends time with her boyfriend, and goes out to events that interest her. My girlfriend has a road bike, plays tennis, goes to kickboxing and kung fu classes, and she plays guitar hero from time to time. I do have a female cousin that takes on more than she should.

  22. misanthropicminx April 21, 2014 at 12:05 am #

    Reblogged this on The Misanthropic Minx.

  23. ArtPermit April 22, 2014 at 7:44 pm #

    Utility is overrated! Hurrah to you for Just Being.


  1. On Being Useful | Evolving Self - April 9, 2014

    […] Great piece from Anne at The Belle Jar! […]

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    […] The Belle Jar on being useful. […]

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