I once thought of a sort of semi-absurd joke as a response to someone claiming that they are useless. It wasn’t really supposed to make too much sense, it was something like this:
“It’s actually good that you’re useless. Tools are useful, because we have a use for them. So if you were useful, you’d just be used like a tool.”
When I told this to someone they actually took it seriously and thought it was supposed to be encouraging. I knew that the idea of being useful was odd, which was why I made the joke, but there is actually more to it, and the contrast of a tool with a person shows how we treat them differently.
This difference is that we have little regard for tools because our view of them is purely utilitarian, whereas we should not treat people that way because it ignores their wishes, free will, feelings, and humanity. It is not only selfish, inconsiderate and opportunist people that treat others like this. This is how many organisations work as well, discarding their employees that are not useful to them anymore. More importantly, this has become a part of modern society as a whole. It is important to note that when we use the word “useful”, that is not an independent statement. Being useful is always relative; if something is useful, it has to be useful to do something in particular. When we say that someone is useful, we generally mean that the person is capable of doing the things that the people in control want. Presumably for leaders to justify their utilitarian systems for the most benefit to themselves, they have tricked us into believing that being useful is good. The more useful a person is, the more admirable and better they are. Those with the most skills, and ultimately those with the most marketable skills that are wanted by employers are those who are considered the most successful in life. What such leaders want in this regard tends to be money and power, so those that can attain them the most money and the most power are the most useful. This is why academics, humanitarians, and manual labour jobs are considered as low as they are.
This is perhaps where the expression “those who can’t do, teach” comes from. This saying is of course not causal, and is only sometimes true. What it claims is that education is so lowly that it is only done by those who are not good enough to be able to perform useful actions. This is of course erroneous and disrespects those who educate us, without whom we would lose a lot. It also does not understand that knowledge and learning are fundamental to human advancement, both as a species and as individuals.
What this results in is a system where we have contempt for those who aren’t as useful for our companies or governments. We think less of people who haven’t graduated highschool, or even university. Failure in academics, the lowest part of the system, is seen as ineptitude and incompetence. It assumes that these people are not even capable of going through the most “useless” institution. This of course also assumes that school is for whatever reason easier than what ones does in their job, which has no basis as some people’s situations, teachers, and schools are harder than others’, and equally some people’s jobs are harder than others, so it may well be that one’s schooling was much harder than their and many others’ jobs. More importantly, it doesn’t really ask why they failed. There are many reasons why someone might not do well in school, from trouble at home to ADHD or other disorders and diseases to being unlucky and having bad teachers, or simply not being good at doing things the way the education system wants. The student could be very good at many other things, and might even learn very well given a different system. The problem is that society generally disregards the reasons for failure, and instead assumes the reasons and focuses more on the result.
Even success in academics though can result in disrespect if the student studied a field that is not considered useful. This is why, despite being fundamentally important, philosophy is viewed as nothing more than a field where people sit around thinking and being useless, and don’t give anything back to society. This disrespect for philosophy has led to people not knowing how to think reasonably, which means they make poor decisions and never realise it because they don’t think enough, allowing others to tell them how and what to think.
Usefulness can be seen in the idea of a meritocracy, where people are rewarded for success in specific useful roles. Achievements outside such roles may be seen as useless to society, which means they are not rewarded (sometimes justly so) but this also leads to promoting the useful and discouraging the useless as inferior. The idea of rewarding those who achieve things proportionately sounds fair because it applies a system of equivalent trade: if you help society, society will help you just as much. This is not necessarily bad, but eventually the issue of those who are not able to help society arises. Some might claim that those who cannot give anything to society do not deserve anything. This of course is nothing but a dogmatic adoption of the idea of meritocracy, and ignores all moral and humanist views. Sadly, the idea that everyone deserves equal human rights has been twisted and forgotten. It is confused with communist distribution of wealth, and has been replaced with a survival of the fittest view where one must earn everything they have. This often devolves into a subtle way of saying that one must earn the right to live. Fairness is not meritocratic; while some think that it is unjust to get something you did not earn, they do not realise that it is unjust for innocent yet useless people to suffer and die simply because they weren’t born with or adopted the skills, mindset, or whatever else they needed for someone to consider them useful enough to give money to them.
Being useful is not a compliment, it’s simply a statement of whether or not you can be used.
Don’t worry about being useless. Tools have a use, people do not.