The Useless Life – Zhuangzi

Many of us in the modern world are obsessed, absolutely obsessed with the idea of things being useful or having a use. We assess the worth of an object based on its relative usefulness next to other objects of its kind, we often judge people based on their usefulness to us, and we ask in times of extreme frustration, “what’s the use?”, as if the cosmos should have some purpose or be “for” some ulterior end.

This, however is not a universal attitude of mind, and we see that in the Chinese philosophies of Taoism, uselessness is considered a virtue, or at the least a clever strategy to get an individual out of hassle or strife. There are two tales in the Zhuang Zhou (Chuang Tzu) about enormous trees, both large beyond belief and incalculably ancient. One story involves an apprentice, who is following his master, Shih the carpenter, around the countryside. The pair come to one of these gigantic trees, and surprisingly to the apprentice, the master walks on without so much as giving the tree a second glance. The apprentice asks him, “Since I took up my ax and followed you, master, I have never seen wood as beautiful as this. But you do not bother to look at it and walk on without stopping. Why is this?” (Source:  Mysticism and the Spiritual Quest: A Crosscultural Anthology)

The master replied, “Stop! Say no more! That tree is useless. A boat made from it would sink, a coffin would soon rot, a tool would split, a door would ooze sap, and a beam would have termites. It is worthless timber and is of no use. That is why it has reached such a ripe old age.”

We can see clearly here that what man regards as deficits in the tree, facets of its uselessness, are to the tree great virtues, as they exempt the tree from being cut and treated for human purposes. In the same way, the Zen tale of the man whose luck appears to be shifting each day, firstly with his horses running away, secondly with them returning with wild horses, thirdly with his son being thrown and breaking a leg, and fourthly with his son being passed over by the military draftsmen in a time of war. The uselessness of the son, being unfit for warfare, is his saving grace. He may be unable to walk at the present time, but he does not have to risk his life or take another’s as part of his duty to an impersonal and violent state.

We strive to cultivate the virtues of usefulness in most areas of our lives, but I believe we are taking this too far. Does the CEO of a large multinational corporation strike you as a genuinely comfortable or happy man? He has become far too useful to others in his field, and is now isolated at the top in an overarching situation of managing variables, which is in and of itself a great deal of what we mean by the word “stress”.

If an object or a person is useful, they become desired for their usefulness, and so their time may become increasingly taken up by requests to be of use to someone else or in some certain capacity. This leaves them with little in the way of relaxation, of the kind of meandering aimlessness that is so characteristic of wise men and sages the world over. It is just this “useless” mind that allows the most space for the qualities and character of the world to shine through. If we only look at things to determine their worth in terms of how useful they are, we will only see a small cross section of those things directly relevant to our intended use for the thing, and qualities not relevant to our particular scheme for the thing will be glossed over or simply left out. A furrier sees furs when he looks at a rabbit, a butcher its meat; yet a child sees the rabbit and seeks to relate to it.

If we prioritise usefulness too much, we run the risk of missing some of life’s most beautiful and fulfilling treasures. Music and art are two that spring to mind. There is no real use for music, it is not created in order to fulfil one, and the same is true of art. Of course, one can make music and art with a certain use in mind, for example, to arouse people, to send a political message and so on, but the point here is that these are uses for music and art, rather than demonstrations of how art or music is useful in and of itself.

Indeed, it is in their very uselessness that we find their joy. Play is another form of conduct that is not necessarily useful for anything outside of itself, and yet it is one of our most treasured activities. As children we spend most of our time doing it, and it is instrumental in our learning to relate constructively to the world around us. We cannot simply say though that the value of play is that it refreshes us for work, or that it makes us more useful, for then we would be destroying the spirit of the thing in order to give the impression that the activity is inherently useful.

It is this destruction of the quality of life that I feel is the threat of obsessive focus on “usefulness”, and it is by becoming more comfortable with its opposite that we can inoculate ourselves against creating a world that exists based on utility, where music is “for something”, art has a “goal”, and play is simply a necessary and purposeful support for work.


14 thoughts on “The Useless Life – Zhuangzi

  1. Loved this!
    I was skeptical at first.. Wondering just how uselessness is going to benefit anyone. Then you tell the tree story. Perfect. I now want to be more useless! 😆

    Liked by 1 person

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