We value things. Tangible things. Quantifiable things. If a thing can be measured or priced, it has value. However, we tend to appreciate most what is intangible or immeasurable. Activities like reading your favorite book, spending time with friends and family, or worshiping our Creator all lack real quantifiable value. They have no real usefulness, so far as the world and its practicalities are concerned. They lack the tactile thing-ness or measurability that we often need to make judgements. However, despite their nothingness and uselessness, they are the most important aspects of our lives.
Some of my favorite activities many would consider not to be activities at all. I like to do nothing. I like to sit in a chair and think. Or take a walk and think. Or sit in the chapel trying to be perfectly quiet without thinking at all. This is useless. No one gains measurable benefits from these inactive activities. They are not done for some greater motive. They are done simply for their own sake. But these inactive activities are invaluable. Doing nothing or engaging in useless activities are necessary for being human. It is what separates us from animals or computers. Contemplation, as Aristotle says, is a useless activity that should be the highest act all men perform.
This is not to say that our lives are ones of inaction. Not at all. Human perfection requires action. All natures require motion, and we must act to achieve our ends. But, the highest goods and the greatest acts are those that have no other use outside of themselves. While many good acts — for example, eating and breathing — are useful and worthwhile, they are done so that we may participate in so-called useless acts. You can’t contemplate if you don’t breathe. However, it is the useless act of contemplation that is more important.
An appreciation of uselessness is also important for our relationships. A priest once told me that the best compliment he ever received from his father was that he was useless. While at the time he considered it an insult, when reflecting back on the situation he realized what a profound statement of love his father was making. Our friends and families should be useless. They are not here to serve us. If we are motivated by love to help them reach eternal salvation, we treat them as useless. In self-abnegation, we forget ourselves and our own desires just for the sake of loving others. Our concerns and desires become nothing.
In our own relationship with God, we should remember our complete insignificance. As the Psalmist says “You have given me a short span of days; my life is as nothing in your sight.” (Psalm 39: 6) We have nothing to offer God but the gifts He has first given us. Nothing could be more consoling.
So the next time someone accuses you of doing nothing or being useless, thank them for the compliment.
Image: Byun Hoon Chang lounging on grass