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Complementary Corner

The usefulness of uselessness

Renee Lehman

(5/2017) "Everyone knows the usefulness of the useful, but no one knows the usefulness of the useless." - Chuang Tzu

The Chinese Taoist philosopher, Chuang Tzu (369-298 B.C.E.), wrote The Zhuangzi, a revered Taoist text. It promotes a holistic philosophy of life, encouraging detachment from conforming to cultural norms. It also encourages the nurturing of our natural "ancestral" strengths and abilities, in order to live a simple and natural, but full and flourishing life. He encouraged a way of understanding that allowed one to be fluid and flexible in dealing with life. His teachings were all about simplicity and naturalness. He wrote several parables commending the virtue of uselessness, such as knotted, gnarled, fruitless trees (Gary Toub, The Usefulness of the Useless). One such story is the following:

"A certain carpenter was traveling with his helper. They came to a town where a giant oak tree filled the square. It was huge, with many limbs spreading out; large enough to shade a hundred oxen and its shade covered the entire square. The helper was amazed at the potential lumber contained in this one tree but the carpenter passed it by with a mere glance. When his helper asked him why he had passed up such a magnificent specimen of timber the carpenter replied that he could see at once that the great oak’s branches were useless to him.

"They are so hard," he said, "that were I to take my ax to them it would split. The wood is so heavy that a boat made of it would sink. The branches themselves are so gnarled and twisted they cannot be made into planks. If I tried to fashion house beams with it they would collapse (from termite infestation). If I made a coffin from it you would not be able to fit someone inside. Altogether it is a completely useless timber and of no use. And that is why it has reached such a ripe old age."

At first glance, it seems rather puzzling to claim that uselessness can be the most useful of all. In this story, the message that I think Chuang Tzu is conveying is that all straight, perfect and standardized trees are usually the first ones to be cut down by a carpenter. So, its usefulness sooner or later proves to be fatal as it attracts those who are looking to take advantage of its value. For example, usefulness can be seen in this writing from Chapter 4 of The Zhuangzi:

"In Sung there's a place called Ching-shih that's perfect for catalpa, cypress, and mulberry. But if they're over a hand span around, they're cut by people wanting tether posts for monkeys. If they're three or four spans, they're cut by people looking for grand roof beams. If they're seven or eight spans, they're cut by families wanting fancy coffins for aristocrats and wealthy merchants. So instead of living out the years heaven gave them, they're hacked down halfway along their journey. Such is the grief of usefulness."

I do not think that he is saying that people should be lazy or slothful, because in many of his writings he discussed how discipline was important to build the character of a person. So, what's all this talk about uselessness really about?

From my perspective, the underlying point deals with the differences between the external (visible world) and the internal (invisible world). Many times, the person we present to the world is the one that we believe will impress others. We crave the spotlight, and tend to accentuate the aspects of ourselves that are valued by our modern society. In the process, we use other people and are used up by them as well.

We become so focused on our external image that we overlook the core of who we are. Though we might be viewed as a success by modern societal standards, we feel empty and alone inside. In essence, our external useFULLness creates internal useLESSness.

In Taoism, it is said that the sage pays no attention to societal expectations. He or she cultivates his or her internal being by finding and maintaining their center. By being centered and grounded in who you are, you can build a strong personal foundation that allows you to deal with life as it shows up -- the good, the bad and the ugly.

"The trees on the mountain can be used to build and so are cut down. When fat is added to the fire it consumes itself. Cinnamon can be eaten and so is harvested. The lacquer tree can be used and so is slashed. Everyone knows the usefulness of the useful, but no one knows the usefulness of the useless." - Chuang Tzu

Renee Lehman is a licensed acupuncturist and physical therapist with over 25 years of health care experience. Her office is located at 249B York Street in Gettysburg, PA. She can be reached at 717-752-5728.

Read other article on well being by Renee Lehman