On Feeling “Useless” in a Pandemic

“The reason why the philosopher can be compared to the poet is that both are concerned with wonder…” St. Thomas Aquinas

So goes the epigraph to the extraordinary chapter “The Philosophical Act” in Josef Pieper’s Leisure, The Basis of Culture.

Pieper’s book has been an absolute balm to me over the past few months. I will remember it, along with The Power and the Glory, as a book that helped me get through COVID-Tide. As I’ve written before, his discussion of the classical distinction between ratio and intellectus helped me name my own tendency, not to mention the broader cultural tendency, to not only privilege, but to live as if there is nothing but ratio, nothing but discourse, logic, practicality, nothing but total work. But Pieper’s book reminds us that not only is there something more than ratio, and the world of total work it brings in its wake, but that the contemplation and the leisure and the festivity of intellectus is what truly nourishes, what truly establishes culture.

There is indeed another “logic”, the logic of intellectus, which is the logic of wonder, the logic that fuels prayer, poetry, and philosophy, what Pieper collects together as the Philosophical Act.

Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

Feeling Useless

Though a balm the book has also caused more than a little of what Pieper calls “existential disturbance”, mostly because I didn’t realize the extent to which I am myself under the sway of “total work”. Until any sense of normal working hours/conditions was taken away from me, until the normal metrics of success were suddenly unavailable (and, yes, this is true for a minister too. Imagine that), I had not known my own tendency to measure myself in terms of usefulness. In fact, early in the pandemic a friend asked me how I was feeling and I said, “I feel useless.” Pieper helped me understand that what on the face of it seems like a totally irrational and overly dramatic thought was in fact a sign that I had surrendered to the “logic” of total work. It is in fact rational, in the sense of ratio, for me to measure myself in terms of usefulness.

Importantly, Pieper is not arguing that we should do away with ratio . He is rather arguing for the recovery of and primacy of intellectus. By primacy I mean that for Pieper, intellectus is both the beginning place—it must come first—and the source of what really matters in life. And this is important because the things that intellectus brings are in a sense “useless” too, in that they ultimately do not produce value, rather they have value in and of themselves. (I’ve written previously in praise of useless things, but I had not yet connected that thought to my own sense of uselessness.)

Prayer, Poetry, and Philosophy

Such “useless” things come to those who attend to the world and to those who cultivate the sense of wonder, in a word to those who contemplate. Pieper numbers prayer, poetry, and philosophy among these “useless” things. They are useless yet indispensable, and when engaged in as acts of wonder are means of transcending the everyday, the working world, the world that recognizes only ratio.

But the pull of total work is so powerful, its promises so seductive, that there are also false forms of each of these. There is pseudo-prayer which is concerned with self and not with God, pseudo-poetry which merely follows trends or is nothing more than eloquent narcissism, and pseudo-philosophy which has no sense of wonder. We all must beware of these.

So if you too have felt useless, allow yourself to reimagine that feeling as an opportunity or as invitation back to wonder. In service of such wonder, might I recommend The Overstory by Richard Powers. It is a book that deeply rewards attentive wonder. Here is a passage that captures that dynamic beautifully:

“Yet still this tree has a secret tucked into the thin, living cylinder beneath its bark. Its cells obey an ancient formula: Keep still. Wait. Something in the lone survivor knows that even the ironclad law of Now can be outlasted. There’s work to do. Star-work, but earthbound all the same. Or as the nurse to the Union dead writes: Stand cool and composed before a million universes. As cool and composed as wood.”

Richard Powers, The Overstory

From my Commonplace Book: Vocation, Silence, and Knowing

One of my English professors in college had us keep a commonplace book where we wrote down important quotations, interesting images, central ideas, etc. from the things we were reading. It’s a practice I’ve more or less maintained since college, and when I taught high school English, I had my students keep a commonplace book as well.

A commonplace book is like a travelogue of the mind or a kind of map for the ideas and images that have served as landmarks. Mapping the world in this way is not an attempt at mastery but a desire for orientation, the desire to see what can be seen, to know what can be known in a lifetime, while recognizing the limitations of a single person to map the world in any comprehensive way. Loren Eisley reminds us of this with his striking image of the human journey in time and the desire for knowledge as a kind of caravan:

“We have joined the caravan, you might say, at a certain point; we will travel as far as we can, but cannot in a lifetime see all that we would like to see or learn all we hunger to know.” Loren Eisley, The Immense Journey

Here is a picture of one of the pages from notebook. Good luck reading it.

I recently filled up a notebook, so I thought I would collect some of my commonplace quotations here that dealt with similar themes. One benefit of keeping a commonplace book is the ability to review the themes and preoccupations that emerge over a period of time. As a preacher and teacher of scripture and as a student of theology, one perennial theme for me is the need for intellectual modesty and humility. Every intellectual pursuit has temptations and presumptions, but presuming to speak for and about God might be the biggest presumption of all. And yet as Pope Benedict XVI notes, it is the vocation of the theologian to speak, but before speaking one must listen:

“Silence and contemplation: speaking is the beautiful vocation of the theologian: in the loquacity of our day and of other times, in the plethora words, to make the essential words hear. Through words, it means making present the Word, the Word who comes from God, the Word who is God.“

The theologian speaks the word of God, but the theologian must first hear the Word and then speak. Theology then begins in contemplation, with closed lips and open ears. But the theologian does not stay silent. There are words to speak precisely because there is a Word who has spoken. There is a Word that has made and that even now upholds all things. There is a Logos that makes the -ology of theology not only possible but vital.

Such an approach to theology, one that begins in silence and then speaks, guards against two dangers. On the one hand, there is the danger of hubris, the delusion that in saying true things about God that we have said everything about God. On the other hand, there is the danger of paralyzing agnosticism. It is a kind of fear to say anything about God since it is impossible to say everything about God. Though this fear might masquerade as humility, real humility and silence in the face of mystery do not result in an agnostic throwing up of the hands or in a despairing resignation, but in a desire to more deeply indwell the mystery and then to speak truly of it.

Naming and knowing can be forms of appreciation and can be real knowledge, even if they are not comprehension and mastery. As Robert McFarlane says, “I perceive no opposition between precision and mystery, or between naming and not knowing.” Robert McFarlane, Landmarks

And mastery itself is the wrong goal. As Balthasar reminds us, “Problems do not exist in order to be solved; we can never get ‘behind’ Being. We always look with mild contempt on everything we have solved. Problems should become more luminous in the light of the great mystery in which we live, move, and have our being.” Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Grain of Wheat

Moreover, the God we speak of is love, and so we know him truly by loving him. “The person who prays begins to see: praying and seeing go together because—as Richard of St. Victor says—‘Love is the faculty of seeing’…All real progress in theological understanding has its origin in the eye of love and its faculty of beholding. “ Joseph Ratzinger, Beholding the Pierced One

In sum, what begins in silence ends in praise. Praise and thanksgiving are the fruit of true theological reflection.