Stacked colorful plastic storage boxes
Storage Boxes by Valerie Everett (2007) CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

“It is very hard to be brave,” said Piglet, sniffing slightly, “when you’re only a Very Small Animal.”

Rabbit, who had begun to write very busily, looked up and said: “It is because you are a very small animal that you will be Useful in the adventure before us.”

― Benjamin Hoff, The Te Of Piglet

Now when I made my reservation for this working vacation, I had more than a source of potential blog fodder in mind. In fact, I planned to be Useful. As a very Useful Auntie Bat, I can entertain my nephew, make chicken soup and hard-boiled eggs, go grocery shopping and be trusted with a variety of assignments. I also ensure my sister eats food and gets some sleep. This is especially crucial this week because my sister, after a week of working nights at the hospital, is moving into a new house this weekend.

Yesterday, I upped my utility when I was able to wait at the new house for the delivery folks to bring the washing machine and dryer. Strangely, the laundry room is on the second floor of the house (something new to me). The delivery guys had it covered, though. They used this contraption called a shoulder dolly to carry the appliances upstairs. If you haven’t clicked on the link, a shoulder dolly is a kind of 2 person harness system that allows you to sling something heavy between you. Now that’s Useful!

I also stopped by the store and purchased 12 large clear plastic bins with lids to aid in packing random stuff. Also, packed some of aforementioned random stuff. (Luckily, my sister is not planning on packing entirely by herself, but has hired a moving company that will also pack up and more importantly, unpack for you.)

I have noticed I need a lot of reassurance as to my Usefulness.
I told my sister, “I am trying very hard to be Useful. I hope this is helping and not making you more stressed out.”
“You are very Useful!” she exclaimed.

(I realized that I also have this conversation every couple of days with Mom, too, when I’m back in KS, upon completing various tasks.)

I’m not sure when being Useful became my raison d’etre in life. I have always been a fan of tangible accomplishment: Getting stuff done, receiving verbal accolades, earning letter grades and stickers. Surely, being acknowledged Useful just another form of “Well Done!”

I also really enjoy the concept of social utility, a la Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. As far as I remember, though, the Utilitarians didn’t require you to constantly justify your continued existence based on your sum Usefulness. (That sounds like a set-up for a particularly grim dystopian SF novel. “So how were you Useful today, atomized widget of the totalitarian state?”)

I was in a relationship for many years with a person who was a strong believer in personal utility as an indicator of human worthiness. (This may have been shaped by his being an engineer, with an emphasis on systematization over empathy as a guiding principle in life.) He loved this joke about college majors:

The scientist asks, “Why does it work?”
The engineer asks, “How does it work?”
The English major asks, “Would you like fries with that?”

The idea being, unless you were producing something of measurable value, you had no value. We only really talked about this implicit value system toward the end of our relationship. At that point, I was beginning to understand that I had unconsciously absorbed many of his attitudes about personal utility and they were making me miserable. I felt like a failure because despite my law degree, I wasn’t a lawyer. I hated the job I had in financial services, I was unsure about my ability to be an effective teacher (my career change)and felt like “a waste of space.” Based on my perceived utility to the world, I was completely unworthy of the oxygen I was breathing, much less happiness or self-determination.

In the years since that breakup, I have begun to re-engage with the concept of what it means to be Useful. I have not completely shed the underlying anxiety that if I’m not being Useful, I am not worthy. Yet, little by little, I am redefining Useful in ways that include intangibles such as love, connection and imagination. So on this trip, I know that I am quantifying Usefulness in extra hours my sister sleeps, extra calories she eats, and extra snuggles I can share with my nephew. It is also measured in the reduced stress of all the parties to this topsy-turvy mode of existence and the strengthening of our bonds as a family. I got your back, sister.

Tangent for this post:
The brand name for the plastic storage containers in the picture: Really Useful Boxes.


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