Meaning and Purpose

Being Self-ish

by John Fawcett
Being self ish

One of the greatest ironies about the group of professionals to which I belong is this - we often fail to practice what we preach. We build extensive and elaborate theories of health, wellness and resilience; we design complex or simple methods of both taking care of others and looking after ourselves. We write about it, blog about it, teach and coach about it. We become knowledge experts, and sometimes gather a following or at least a level of respect for what we have learned, built and promote.

But the context of making a living is ferocious and underneath the so-called wisdom lies the sharp teeth of reality. To thrive economically it is necessary to be present, to be constantly present, to be witty and wise and socially active. To be connected to others, to be up to date with the latest research, analysis and publications. To be able to sift the trash from the gold and to be able to feed the networks.

All this to establish presence, relevance and, not incidentally, fee-paying clients. 

There has to be a point at which is not either wise or healthy to go beyond. 

I am, so very slowly, getting there.

In the latter part of 2017 I got the flu. Flu shot or not (and at my age it only protects about 38% of us) I became host to a whole community of highly active and influential creatures. All of whom needed my body and energy to build their community of purpose and meaning. 

It was, as it always is, the wrong time to get the flu. A couple of major (and paying!) projects with deadlines were just beginning. To put those aside would have cost a bulk of the years income. So, I did what we have all done over and over again. I dug in and did the work. In the middle of all this I had to put in 4 consecutive weeks of 7 days at 14 hours per day. I practiced work triage and cast aside projects, hobbies and interests (including this web site) as I produced and kept my community of flu creatures alive and kicking.

At the end of the intense work period I lay down for a couple of days and then planned to pick up where I had left off. 

I stopped. 

I was reflecting on a text from Chuang Tzu as interpreted by Thomas Merton (1997) when I stopped.

                        "The cinnamon tree is edible: so it is cut down

                         The lacquer tree is profitable: they maim it

                         Every (man) knows how useful it is to be useful

                         No one seems to know

                        How useful it is to be useless" 

Being 'useful' (productive) was not being useful at all. I was not recovered. Not by a long way. I was still ill, and would be for some months.

So I practiced being useless. I did minimal paid work. I did not even open this web site, nor did I check social media. I replied to emails. I read books, I listened to music, I went to the movies, I had coffee with friends and lovers.

I went to an island where there was no electricity and swam in clear waters.

Did I miss the work? Did you miss me?

If we are to thrive, then we must stop. If there is one thing the #MeToo movement is teaching me it is that stopping is all that is asked. And it is stopping that is the hardest of all things to achieve.

Resilience is not the process of becoming hardened or strengthened or toned or muscular. It is growth that releases life.

Once the influenza community had reached its overall objective it left and, to be fair, I was thankful to see it go. I will be even more thankful if its cousins decide to not visit this coming winter. 

However, it turns out that I missed nothing of lasting value by stopping. 

And I spent days and days on golden beaches and crystal clear waters and nights under an undiminished canopy of stars and galaxies. 

How absolutely useful it is to be useless.


"The Way of Chuang Tzu", by Thomas Merton, (1965, 1997, 2010)

New Directions Publishing Corporation, NY (page 59)

Read next

Meaning and Purpose

A Brief Collapse of Time

We are in lockdown. What day is it? One of the most common comments on social media is the old joke about yesterday, today, tomorrow, everyday.

Read more

50 Dead - Resilience Reflection #3 - Social Cohesion

We know that relationships are both protective and growth-promoting. The concept of social support has been discussed in the literature for many years, and we are beginning to understand just...

Read more