Our Need to Be Useful

Wednesday, April 8, 2015 - 5:13 am

Our Need to Be Useful

We all have a wish to be useful, to feel that we are serving something or someone beyond ourselves. Sometimes that wish is thwarted by inner or outer forces — as it has been for me during times of depression, as it is for others because of unemployment. When that happens, life can go dark.

So I love stories about the resilience of the human spirit, about the many ways people find “to be of use” — even when they are diminished by age, accident, illness or other circumstances. Here’s one of my favorite stories, one that happened literally in my back yard.

For many years, my wife Sharon and I had a neighbor with whom we shared back yards and a flower garden. Eloise, a widow, was an alert, bright, and independent person who never asked for help. But as she aged and began to totter a little, we did our best to keep watch on her.

One summer morning, Sharon looked out our kitchen window and saw Eloise — then in her late eighties — lying in her yard, facing away from our house. Flying down our back steps, across the yard and thru the flower garden, Sharon rushed to her side and asked, “Are you OK?” Only then did Sharon notice that Eloise was slowly moving her hand among the blades of grass, plucking out the weeds within her reach.

“Oh, I’m fine,” said Eloise. “I just took a little fall and found I couldn’t get up. I figured that while I’m down here, I might as well be useful!”
I feel certain that Eloise would be on Marge Piercy’s list of “people I love the best!”

To Be of Use
by Marge Piercy

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. His book On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old will be published in June.

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