Useless, but not meaningless

Useless but not meaningless (Nutzlos, sondern nicht Bedeutugslos)

Kuruvilla Pandikattu SJ

When we look at the world around us and within us, we see how beautiful it is! The sunshine, the smiling faces and the peace that we feel within us! The feeling of well-being that overwhelm us and the sense of joy within us and the beauty outside of us! One thing we further realise is that all these things do not cost much. We do not need to spend much energy and pay money to enjoy these little things of life. The air we breathe is free, the aroma of the flowers in the wild is also free. The freshness of the morning dew and the warmth of the evening sun and the occasional view of the majestic rainbow – all these are free!

In an age, when we ask, “How much does it cost?” or “What is in for me?” It is good to remind ourselves that the most basic things in life are free. We have not paid for our very life. We have not earned it! Nor do we deserve it. The self that writes and reads this page, that enjoys the day and feel the pain is a gift! From the almighty!

Today our general culture urges us to calculate the cost of something before jumping into it? How much money is involved? Does it pay if I invest so much of my money (time and energy). What is its “cash value”? Our general culture tells us that it would be foolish on my part to invest so much of mental or emotional energy on something that does not pay the returns. Without the returns, without the paychecks, without the interest, there is no satisfaction for life. Therefore, philosophers have found a way of justifying this way of life. They say that the truth of an object or venture has to be determined by its usefulness? A thing is true if it is useful to me or to the society. A machine is true if it works. This leads us to think of the value of a person in terms of his/her usefulness (utility)!

Closely associated with this notion of usefulness (pragmatics) is the “relevance” of a thing! In our normal jargon, when we ask for the relevance of a person or a subject, it means how much does it pay? We are indirectly asking its profit or usefulness. If a course helps us to bring benefits to us (or to the group) it is relevant. If a person is helps us rise in our career, he/she is relevant. Otherwise, if a movie satisfies any one of our emotional or sense needs, it is relevant.

But when we take a genuine artist (be it a painter, a singer or a dancer), we enter into a different realm. True, today we are used to measuring the value of a painting in terms of the money it fetches in an auction or exhibition. Still a genuine painter (most of the time such genuine painters are seen by the society as half-crazy!) Measures the worth of a painting not by its money. In general artists do not tend to become rich. There are very few genuine writers who have earned a luxurious life by their literatures. For an artist, the painting is an expression of himself/herself. Painting is a way of manifesting his/her inner and outer world to oneself. Its value cannot be measured by its cash value. Its value is measured by itself. A work of art becomes a self-fulfilling enterprise. Therefore “art is for its own sake.” The dancer who identified herself with the dance is at home with herself and with the cosmic dance, where the distinction between you and me are vanished. In such a contemplative dimension money pays no role. The usefulness of such dance does not enter into the picture of its meaningfulness. The dance is a total expression (and realisation) of the dancer’s own self. There art is its own reward. The joy and fulfilment of art is its very existence. They come from one’s inner self and not from others.

When Karl Marx said that for a non-alienated worker, the product of his labour is one’s own extension, he saw work as a self-fulfilling dimension of our life. When Immanuel Kant affirmed that humans are “ends in themselves” he referred precisely this aspect of our being. When moral theologians assert that ultimately we are responsible to our own conscience, they affirm that in each one of us there is a sacred space, where we can truly be ourselves, where our value is not counted (quantified). This is the sacred dimension of our existence.

The sacredness of someone can never be associated with its usefulness. It can never be bought and sold or paid in cash. Understood so the most precious things in our life (love, friendship, respect and death) in this sense, our prayer is a natural reflection of our own lives. Our prayer is a value in itself. Prayer is not a give and take relationship. Prayer is not a matter of usefulness. I do not pray because it is useful to me, it is helpful to me, it is profitable to me. I pray because it is the only way i can be. I pray because of the sacredness i experience within and without me. I pray precisely because it is useless. That makes it tremendously meaningful.

In the same way the worth of a person is not bound to his/her utility. A person is a value in himself/herself. He is ultimately not for anyone else (even for one’s own) utility or usefulness. That makes him or her uniquely meaningful. So the meaningfulness of a person is derived from his/her sacredness or inner depth.

(Taken From: AUC: Asian Journal for Priests, Sept 2005, 50/5, 26-27.)