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The joys of being useless

Posted on 19 April 2011, 15:29

‘There’s a lot of it about,’ said the woman at the bus stop, and I nodded sagely. We do all seem to be ill at the moment, or at least avoiding someone who is.

My particular dose was a respiratory infection, though I didn’t know it at the time. For three weeks, I was coughing like Russian writer, but without their book sales, and it all seemed slightly unfair. I was delivering on my various writing commitments, but a temperature arrived with dull precision every afternoon and evening and then I was fit for nothing and no one.

Finding a doctor before Christmas was a Herculean task in itself, and as ever, we must fight for these things when feeling at our weakest. But finally, in a small corner of a busy A&E department, I discovered an out-of-hours doctor service and the prescribed antibiotics did the rest: health restored. Not before the medic had told me, however, that all cough mixtures were a complete waste of time, and that the best thing to drink with a cough is water.

But the fact is, I had some good times when ill. On one level, it’s a nuisance, having to ring people and cancel engagements, whilst wondering if perhaps you’re fit enough to attend. And then there’s the inability to plan or promise anything, as a day of sickness, becomes a week, and then one week becomes two. How long, O Lord? But shining like a beacon in the darkness was a wonderful sense of uselessness. As I collapsed day after day, I felt like a complete passenger in the world, unable to contribute to the voyage and with no desire to do so. Nothing I had previously set my heart on had any meaning, and it was all very liberating.

I remember long ago being haunted by ‘The Stature of Waiting’ by WH Vanstone. If my memory serves me correctly, it compared the active and challenging life of Jesus before his arrest in Gethsemane and his passive acceptance of circumstances afterwards. His behaviour was suddenly different. Implicit, if not explicit, was a theology of uselessness; an acceptance of holy futility as circumstances changed. If we ever link our value and place in the world with being useful, I suspect we become a danger to ourselves and others.

One of my sweetest memories is of an old man at the end of summer. In his youth, he’d been active and applauded, creating so much in the eyes of the world; but these days, things had changed. He pottered about the allotment, un-pressed by time, happy to rake one or two leaves from his borders and ponder the weakening summer sun. It was a uselessness which shone as bright as anything achieved in his life.

So I’m better now, but there’s something about my illness I don’t want to leave. Energy has returned and I’m running again, seeing people again – but let me retain the liberating truth of my uselessness.

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