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Forget mindfulness, practice uselessness

<p><em>Photo by Sophia Winograd.</em></p>

Photo by Sophia Winograd.

A few weeks ago, I hustled to one of my lectures — as much as one can to a Zoom call — where we discussed ancient Chinese philosophical texts. In one of the works, there was a story about a carpenter passing by a massive, ancient tree and remarking, “It has no use; that is why it has been able to live so long.”

Admittedly, I envied the tree a little bit. I would also like to be useless sometimes — that is, I’d like to be unproductive, this time by my choice, rather than because of mindless scrolling.

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For short periods of time, being useless to everyone else can help us reassert control over our time and energy. Being useless can help prepare us for the global challenges we now face. 

Although it seems like a lifetime ago, we all remember how we spent the first few weeks of the pandemic adjusting to the Zoom reality we’ve lived ever since. Despite immense challenges, many of us stuck to our usual motto: If you have empty space, fill it. With the gaps between classes and summer fast approaching, some of us rushed to sign up for courses or apply for unexpected internships, some of us channeled our creative energies into learning an instrument or language, and all of us searched for ways to avoid feeling overwhelmed.

But this rush to find a “use” for ourselves hampered our ability to reclaim a desperately needed sense of control and well-being.

In recent months, economic and environmental destruction has uprooted deep-seated notions about how we are to improve ourselves in society. The existing model, upon which many of us relied and felt pressured to follow, could not and still cannot bring us through this global challenge and produce a better outcome on the other side.

If we rely on old solutions for organization or usefulness, not only will we never improve our ailing society, but we might make conditions worse, as we crush and cram ever more complex problems into the mold of antiquated, ill-equipped, simplistic answers. This prognosis may sound bleak, but these crises give us the perfect opportunity to question even our most fundamental assumptions about how we use our time. Enter uselessness.

Uselessness is literally taken to mean “without use,” but I would like to offer a more expansive definition. Uselessness in this context might mean “being unproductive in complying with the demands of others.” Being productive requires producing something, which further requires the use of talents, tools, and skills.

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I am suggesting that we push back against our tendency to commoditize these gifts to be useful to others. As human beings, much of what we do is at least partially for the benefit of others, especially our academic and professional work. Even what we consider “skill building” or “self-investment” is just for the benefit of our future selves, which, if you look at the past for reference, might be very different people than who we are now. Perhaps we might gain something from not measuring our gifts by the products they can generate. Perhaps we can give our present selves our undivided attention and the concentrated benefits of our own gifts.

At this point, one might bring several counterarguments. You might agree with me about the benefits of a certain level of detachment from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, but you could argue we achieve this detachment through mindfulness. Certainly they share some features — one could say the calm that mindfulness produces is for the mental state what the creativity uselessness produces is for our skill sets. There are important differences, though. Uselessness pertains to our skills and talents, not our mentality, and practicing uselessness enables us to separate those gifts from their results. Furthermore, uselessness has broader implications for how we collectively manage our resources and tools in order to solve challenges.

One might also argue that practicing uselessness sounds like flouting obligations that could have helped to hone natural talents and develop new skills. I would agree, and that is why I only suggest practicing uselessness for limited periods of time. I am not suggesting we renege on commitments or quit in our pursuit of academic or professional goals. I am suggesting that we take a comprehensive look at how our skills are used and how they are useful to us and others.

Some might say that being useless sounds selfish, especially during a time in which so much pain and suffering in many aspects of our lives might be alleviated by working with our gifts. Again, uselessness does not mean total seclusion or self-centered behavior.

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It is a practice, though, that can prevent the burnout and cynicism that leads some to feel as though they are being reduced to an end product or a function. If we stopped this continuous search to be “useful” or “accomplished,“ with more time to reflect or relax, we might discover how to direct our gifts in a more purposeful manner, making us willing and capable of giving ourselves to a world in need.

If we feel control over how we use our gifts, we will find it easier to come together. We can then use our talents to heal the world and confront the systemic problems facing us now.

Dillion Gallagher is a sophomore planning to major in the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. He can be reached at dilliong@princeton.edu 

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