Achieving uselessness

I took a course in Asian religions in college, during which we read a book called Chuang-tzu, a Taoist text. In this book, it argues that one should try to become useless.  In one instance, the sage Chuang-tzu is climbing up a mountain with a group of people, and they come across a twisted old tree, clinging to the side of the hill.  A few of the men look at it to see if it’s worth chopping down for wood, and decide that it is too gnarled to bother with.  Chuang-tzu states that since the tree is useless, it will be able to die a natural death, and therefore it is a good thing to strive to be useless.  This is a pretty foreign concept in the United States, where our society places such value on how much one has accomplished, produced, knows about, or buys.

Over these past few months I have been taking three classes in addition to working full time in order to get ready for nursing school.  It’s been incredibly busy, and I was finally finished with all of my finals this past Thursday.  This weekend was great, and I definitely took advantage of the fact that I didn’t have any schoolwork to go to the Baltimore Museum of Art, go out with friends, sit on the couch, watch a movie, sleep copious amounts, and do pretty much whatever I wanted.  I was not useful to anyone, no one needed me to do anything, and it was an incredibly freeing feeling.  Being useless is not a bad thing.  Now, I’m not advocating doing nothing with your life, but in this world where a lot of people judge you based on how much you have done, it’s important sometimes to focus on how to make sure things can get done without you.

I attended Laura’s regional meeting on Friday, where the Volunteer Maryland Coordinators talked about different strategies for encouraging the sustainability of the volunteer programs they have created or strengthened over the past ten months.  Our Volunteer Maryland AmeriCorps members have one year to build a program, work out the kinks, and then get it to a point where their organizations can carry on their program without their help, in effect rendering themselves useless.  This is a very difficult thing to achieve, because we are programmed from a young age that doing things ourselves is important, and we’re rewarded for doing so.  It’s also hard to predict how other people are going to run the program in your absence- to be cliché, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink.  This is where the concept of uselessness is even more important.  As a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator or VISTA member, or any kind of consultant, your focus should be on, “how can I work with the people at the organization to set up something that can be viable and successful after I’m gone,” rather than, “how much can I get done.”

Some of the things that VMCs discussed at the regional meeting were creating timelines for event planning and other activities in the volunteer program, organizing computer files in a comprehensive way, and leaving a hard document describing where to find documents in the different folders.  They also discussed how helpful it is to work with the existing volunteers and train them to do aspects of the job, so one person does not have to be responsible for the whole program.

This discussion also made me think of how important it is to operate with this kind of mentality in general.  The work we do in nonprofits, and the goals that drive our organizations are to eventually work ourselves out of a job- to eradicate poverty, or end homelessness.  But it can be hard to always operate in that mode.  If you don’t though, you get to a point where the job is dependent on the very thing you are trying to eradicate, causing quite a conundrum for the good hearted.

So we have a choice.  We can work creatively do everything we can to make ourselves useless because our services have done their work.  Or we can work as hard as we can and burn ourselves out, because we’ve created a situation where in order to make things work, we must remain exactly where we are.

So what kind of useless will you be?

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