On Being Useful

One might believe that being useful is a damn fine character trait. A simple trait that we all aspire to, to simply be useful. The word itself defined, first as a tool ‘capable of being used’ and then as ‘of a valuable or productive kind’, as in living a productive life.

A husband is a tool, fixing odds and ends around the house, and in doing so, is living a productive life. A woman cooking supper is both tool and productive.

Humans can’t be anything, but useful to each other, it’s who we are. We like being useful, in our relationships, in our friendships and even our acquaintances. By making ourselves useful, we all contribute to the greater good. Definitions aside, we don’t go about our daily lives thinking, ‘How can I be useful today?’. More likely we fall into routines of usefulness. Being useful is a habit, like taking your turn to cook supper on a Tuesday night. Being useful is also a compromise between people, as in ‘Hey, I’ll cook supper tonight if you cook tomorrow’.

We don’t approach usefulness from the point of view as being useful, usually it’s in the guise of offering to be helpful. There’s a thin line of difference between the two, useful and helpful. For most people, there’s no difference between the concepts, no thin line to distinguish one from the other.

The thin line I speak of is personal. I can be helpful to others; I can be useful to others. Being helpful is something we all take pride in. We try to help where we see help is needed. Being useful, is a bit more personal, in that the use of the word implies a practical, or beneficial use. Like a hammer, it’s both practical and beneficial in ways a rock would not be to drive a nail home. A rock would be helpful, but a hammer would be useful. It is what a hammer is designed to do. Put another way, if a hundred people are helping to build a house, adding another person to help out, while helpful, isn’t necessarily useful.

The point I’m trying to make isn’t the difference between helpful and useful, the words and concepts of the two are interchangeable. The point I’d like to make is there are times when it’s more important to be useful, and there are times when one needs to step back and question their usefulness in many situations. Being helpful is always nice, almost always appreciated, but if there’s a hundred people building a house, and only one person building a house down the road, where are you going to be most useful?

We all rush to help out, and there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s who most of us are. And while I volunteered to cook on Tuesdays, that was helpful, but not useful till I actually learned to cook.

That’s all I got to say.

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