Do you find some aspects of contemporary culture exhausting? I am the first to admit that we have many benefits from modern technological advancement but there are also some interesting ways in which life has been made harder.
For example, so much of our modern mass communication in the developed world is all about the pursuit and attainment of financial success and fame. Even the most basic maths skills makes it obvious that this is a statistical game that most of us simply cannot win. Only the tiniest subset of people become spectacularly rich or famous and even then, surprisingly, it often fails to bring the happiness and peace that they assumed it would.
To some extent I think we all struggle with this same issue. We often assume that the value and meaning of our lives has much to do with what he have ‘in’ our lives rather than what we do ‘with’ our lives. In Jordan Peterson’s recent book he often talks about the need to ‘be useful’. Being useful simply means that we take stick of our various abilities and capacities and then consider how we can best deploy them to make a positive difference, however small that may be, in the lives of others. Being useful has really struck a resonant chord with me. It runs against the prevailing cultural wisdom that the trajectory of our lives is all about personal success and attainment. It’s true, of course, that success and riches may come our way by ‘being useful’ but this should be an added benefit rather than the focus of how we live.
In essence, how to live well, is a question that has captured human attention at least since classical Greece. They were the first culture to have created a stable enough society that allowed for any kind of leisure time. It was this creation of leisure that began to allow people to actually sit around for a while and begin to consider some of the great questions of meaning and being and existence. It was one of the first questions of what we know call philosophy, “How should I live?”
Aristotle was among the first major thinkers to suggest that more important than riches or fame was the life-task of bringing out all that you had to offer the world and then making something useful of it. It was, perhaps, the birth of the personal development movement!
However, the question remains, “How can you be useful?” It is such a very different question to “How can I be rich, famous or sexual desireable?” The fundamental questions we pose with the very act of living our lives are of the most profound significance. They are perhaps so important that they are equally easy to overlook. Don’t let that happen to you.
So, let me ask you, “Are you being useful?” Are you approaching each day with some sense of contributing your gifts and skills to making the world a slightly better place than it was before you arrived. You don’t have to save whales, fix the climate or run the United Nations. You just need to find a way to be useful.