“When we feel useless, we wish we could be instead brilliant and brawny, angelic and fierce, valiantly taking action. But inaction—or what looks like it—is often useful, too.”
My friend is in the hospital, too sick for any food or flowers I might bring. Too sick for songs or stories. Too sick for silly nostalgia: “Remember our sailing lesson?” sounds random and rude.
Right now it all comes down to cells and drugs and doctoring. Unable to provide those, I feel useless.
Feeling useless—worse yet, telling you I do—makes me feel even more useless: not just basically useless as in being neither a magician nor a physician but now also a whiny baby making everything all about me.
Feeling useless is an under-discussed form of suffering which, I think, drives depression. It measures, like calipers, the distance between whom and what and how and where we are and whom and what and how and where we would be, could be, should be if we were smarter, stronger, richer and otherwise superior. And/or if we were best pals with a deity, if we were omniscient and omnipotent.
That span between reality and possibility can poison every circumstance. However healthy and happy we and our loved ones are, surely somewhere more health and happiness exist.
Against the hard rock of serious illness and such crises, would-haves-should-haves seem unbearable.
As surgeons study charts whose symbols might as well be runes while citing malfunctions in body parts we never even knew existed, every word we say sounds cringey, clanging, clownish. As familiar faces twist in pain or gaze uncomprehendingly at us, we realize that however much we love them, however fiercely we want to fix them, we cannot.
And we feel useless.
Lobsters never do.
Bees, cheetahs, squid —
However little we know about feline and invertebrate psychology, we can fairly safely assume that members of such species never balk while stalking, spawning, feeding and/or fleeing to wonder Why do this? What’s the use?
That existential sense of impotence—that devastating, isolating frustration and shame—never assails them.
Moths and wolves cannot afford to pause during their daily regimens to wonder whether this or that activity is worthwhile, whether it might aid themselves or others or enhance the greater good.
No species but ours can afford such luxury.
Our relatively huge and complex human brains can pause at will to ponder a shining array of options anytime during daily regimens based mainly on preference and not tiny, mandatory circuits of survival strategies.
Millennia of trial and error, courage and invention liberated Homo sapiens from acting on sheer instinct as most species must. We inhabit a wonderland where relatively little is required of us.
We can do almost nothing, yet survive.
But most of us elect to not do nothing.
It is in the choosing, in assessing what we can or cannot, should or should not do at any given moment—basking in this dazzling evolutionary luxury—that we can become our worst tyrants and tormentors.
Some of us were raised to doubt our every word and action, shamed and scared into regretting all we did—yet trained to believe that we must always perform, forever prove ourselves, that just existing is never enough.
Some people suffer from what researchers call “hero syndrome,” sustaining their self-esteem by seeking every opportunity to stage apparent rescues.
What do you think you should do, say or be right now—to whom, and why? Given the realistic range of possibilities, taking a hint from The Serenity Prayer, let’s learn to discern what we cannot change from what we can.
Within that downscaled spectrum of The Possible, can we try to remember that we are neither gods nor machines but only human—and not only human but specific individuals bearing specific histories and scars and gifts?
How to access, accept and/or apply those gifts without drowning in self-recrimination, fear and doubt? Start small: by opening a door, say. Or whispering praise. At any given moment, it might be the perfect thing.
When we feel useless, we wish we could be instead brilliant and brawny, angelic and fierce, valiantly taking action. But inaction—or what looks like it—is often useful, too.
Choosing inaction is an action. And it can be hard and brave because inaction will not let us look heroic. Sometimes our best power is the realization that what makes us useful is just sitting there.
Silence. Waiting. Watching. Companionship.
Letting them sleep.
Need help being still? Read tips from Thich Nhat Hanh here.