On being useful (or not)

March 30, 2018

It seems to be written into our DNA. Just about all of us want to be useful, reach out to others, play our part. Even little children like to help out. Whether we’re motivated by affection, a sense of moral obligation, or a need to prove ourselves worthy, most of us try to support our friends, family and colleagues. And of course, while we’re working, we’re paid to be useful. Once we stop working, we may feel bereft, unneeded. And if as we age we become more frail and need to receive help rather than giving it, we may start to ask ourselves, in consternation and distress, what the value of our life is now.

We’re creatures of our society, and our society places a high value on productivity, particularly through paid work. Never mind that we may have earned a living for years; once we’re retired, we’re viewed as a burden. We’re accused of sucking up all the health care resources, and left to languish in hospital beds, waiting months for a long-term care placement because there isn’t enough long term care. Or we languish at home because there isn’t enough home care for us either. We have outlived our usefulness, says our society, and so we are warehoused and neglected and shunted out of sight.

It’s not just seniors and the disabled who suffer from our preoccupation with usefulness. For generations, we have regarded the non-human world largely in terms of its usefulness to us. Plant and animal life and natural resources have all been bent to our needs, and we are only now just beginning to wake up to the devastating effects of what we have done to the earth.

Usefulness has its place, it helps us get along better and ease each other’s burdens, but I don’t think we should use it as a primary measure of our worth. Most of us value our own lives enormously, quite apart from our usefulness, and unless we are very ill or in pain or despair, we fight hard to go on living. If we feel that way about ourselves, we can assume that other people feel that way too. Life is clearly precious in itself, and we try to live as best we can. We need to incorporate that truth morally and feel it emotionally, place it in the centre of our moral universe. Some might find support for this in religion or philosophy. In a pinch the Golden Rule would do. We are not just a means to other people’s ends.


Very well expressed! I am struggling with my own need to find a sense of connection, and appreciate a gentle reminder to simply value being.