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

10 Replies to “On Feeling “Useless” in a Pandemic

    1. In a word, growth, but measured in terms of attendees and in terms of budgets, rather than in terms of spiritual transformation and Christian faithfulness.

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