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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.

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