The last few months of my life have been a whirlwind of emotional ups and downs. The birth of my nephew (the first baby of the next generation), the passing of a cousin, a momentous birthday, the drama of late summer thunderstorms, and the rush to take in the harvest before a very early snow on Halloween. During all this, I have been torn between work and rest, processing and production. I have struggled daily with the fact that I don’t have a “real job.” Despite the assurances of my family and friends that they do not think any less of me, I cannot shake the feeling that I’m not doing Enough, or that I must be continually striving for something new.
The pressure of growing up “gifted and talented,” then being shunted into honors classes and university, as well as of being extremely sensitive and undiagnosed autistic, has resulted in my having a strict set of expectations for myself. These were picked up not only from my parents, but from teachers, cultural narratives, and friends. Even after burning out and ending up in treatment for depression more than once, I cannot seem to let go of this narrative. “You’re so smart, you’re so creative, you should go to college and Do Something with your life.” I have had employers say, “I can’t wait to see what you make of yourself when you really get out there,” as if my current work were not enough. This is coupled with the guilt of having chronic pain before the age of 30 and sometimes not being able to work due to anxiety or fatigue. The tension between these expectations and my personal reality has been driving me in circles for months.
Thankfully, Jenny O’Dell’s fantastic book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy found its way to me. Many of the themes in her work echo what I have been struggling with — the disconnect between my inner truth and outer reality. While I am logically aware that I have innate value as a living being on this planet, the cultural milieu that I find myself immersed in does not reflect that. I am continually being bought and sold, persuaded and pushed, driven to stress and desperation. Despite my best philosophizing, reasoning, figuring, and logicking, I could not convince myself that my path was a valid one. That choosing not to go into full-time work, choosing to live frugally and selectively, was a real option. I could not allow myself to just do nothing.
I often daydream about giving it all up and living in a cabin off the grid, but I know that that is a very privileged and individualistic choice to make. O’Dell’s work does a great service to people who find themselves in a similar situation — wanting to go back to the land or get away from it all, but knowing there is work to be done in their community and their ecosystem. Her examination of the urge to retreat (to hippie communes, Thoreau cabins, or into the church) due to emotional and spiritual fatigue was heartening. It is so valuable to have these anxieties validated, to hear that my values are not misplaced, but that the culture I live in is severely broken.
In the introduction of her book, O’Dell shares Zhuang Zhou’s story “The Useless Tree,” about an old gnarly oak that is continually passed over by a carpenter due to its ‘deformity.’ I was brought to tears, thinking not only of the beautiful wolf trees that survived logging in my area, but of myself and my cohort of queer, disabled, and autistic friends. I have so often called myself “broken,” or even jokingly (in the manner of so many internet users) “trash,” that it has begun to become part of my identity. Being disabled and burnt out at such a young age, I have started to feel like the machinery of this world has chewed me up and spit me out. I am cast aside because I do not fit into the narrative. I am not only useless but dangerous. The very existence of deviance, whether of neurology, gender, religion, or philosophy, is a threat to the status quo and, therefore, to capital. It’s risky to be queer, especially in the public realm.
I try to find pride, or at least solidarity, in my identities and abilities, but as my continuous anxiety reveals, it is much easier said than done. I find myself referring back to Brene Brown’s work, trying to extricate the shame of my WASP upbringing from my self-image. I look for humor and community in my brokenness, but it is difficult not to want to be useful. Both O’Dell and the tree ask, “useful for what, exactly?” Is being an efficient and effective part of a broken, polluting capitalist machine really a meaningful goal? I know it is not, but I struggle to live this out in my daily life.
O’Dell’s recommendation to those who find themselves dreaming of dropping out is to instead remember that they are already part of a community and an ecosystem wherever they are. Retreat may be necessary for a while, especially to find quiet in this maddening mechanized din, but it is more helpful to root oneself in place and to refuse the terms of this capitalist agreement. Refusal requires us to step outside of the paradigm of productivity and continual, cancerous growth entirely. This can be extremely difficult for those who are personally invested in white supremacy and the alienating individualism it relies upon, especially those beholden to private property. To refuse to participate in the game of production can put our financial and legal security in peril — but by becoming part of a real, vibrant, diverse community, we gain a much more resilient kind of security. And besides, there can be no real security at all, no matter how much land or money one has, if you do not have a functioning ecosystem.
I was pleased to no end to read O’Dell’s comparison of monoculture Monsanto cornfields with gentrified white neighborhoods, something I have remarked upon myself. Homogenization and mechanization strive to convince us that there is only one way of being. Even the most determined of countercultural badasses can find themselves fatigued and worn down by this continual struggle against monoculture. By reaching out and forming networks, by using our diversity to our advantage, we can become more like a healthy ecosystem again. We do not all have to be tall majestic oak trees or even useful crops — as both traditional knowledge and science tell us, it is the small connections that can make the most difference. My friends in mycology, social justice, and farming often frame their work as ‘creating mycelial networks,’ unseen yet immensely powerful. We are learning more every day about the importance of healthy bacterial, fungal, and insect communities, and I hope that more people can take time to give attention to the less glamorous ecological and social networks in their daily lives.
My gratitude goes out to all of those doing the hard work of being rooted and useless. To the broken ones, to the queer, wild, and beautiful. Simply by being alive and being your glorious selves, you make every day a small revolution. I am so very glad I found this book at this time in my life. I know it will take time and work to deprogram myself from the urge to be useful, the shame of not being productive, but I am glad to know I am not alone in this feeling. Many frightful things are going on in the world, but I am continually blessed and surprised by the beauty I find around me. May we be a forest of useless trees, growing strong roots and shading those who seek respite.