Those are the butchered words of a Burl Ives song I sang as a kid until my sister corrected me. The last word is actually helpless, not useless. But it made so much more sense to think of my elders as full of vim and vigour, but just spinning their wheels. They're not helpless, but they don't effect anything significantly either. You can't go to them to try to make a difference on anything significant. It probably got meshed in my head with my dad's gentle refrain beaten into my head, "Do try to be useful," whenever anything was happening around me, like groceries or housecleaning or dinner.
I have no memory of the song being about a whale. To my young mind, it was about the sad incompetence of the older generation, and it I was the first protest song I sang as I pictured the youth suffocating their elders in order to make shit happen. But then I became a useless elder and the cycle continues.
I've been thinking about my uselessness lately, and then I watched HyperNormalisation and listened to an interview with Adam Curtis, who said that radicals started giving up the fight in the 1970s. I felt a little vindicated as he lamented the movement towards self-absorbed obsessions with working out; I loathe exercise for its own sake. But that was quickly replaced with a bit of shame as he turned to the radicals that retreated into their art and writing as a quieter form of protest that's essentially useless. Okay, that hit a nerve. He argues that what we need is for people go to protest sites, whatever cause is near and dear, and don't tweet about it, but just participate. And participate until it's fixed. Don't just make an appearance, take a selfie, then congratulate yourself on the way back home, ummm, like I do with the marches I attend. (But doesn't making lengthy documentaries fit in with making art?)
And that reminded me of a great book I was fortunate to be forced to read in university: Sources of the Self, by Charles Taylor (listen to a shorter version here), a Canadian philosopher who happens to be in the news everywhere right now since winning the Berggruen Prize for advancing humanity. His sudden wave of publicity gives me great hope that we're on the verge of actually paying attention to his ideas. His extraordinary tome traces philosophy from the beginnings to now and suggests that we've gotten ourselves into a muddle because we've shifted from asking questions about human nature (philosophy) with an interest in furthering society, to thinking entirely about ourselves and the ordinary life (psychology, particularly of the self-help variety) with an interest in developing our personal potential. The way to end our malaise is to go back to the source to figure out what we're all about. It's a call to reject the notion that values are subjective. That's a tiny nutshell for several hundred pages, but I'll get to the rest of it another day.
We've shifted to soft relativist positions that don't really allow us to have ideals. Instead of getting into the nooks and crannies of right and wrong, thinking and figuring out which really is the best action for the greater good, we largely look for ways to justify doing what we want. And a general attitude that says "your way is just as valid as mine" encourages us all on our merry way, ignoring atrocities along the path. But many think the opposite slides down a slope towards totalitarianism. If I imply your reasoning is questionable and your choices immoral, then I'm telling you what to do. And what give me that right?? I'm labeled arrogant and the argument is dismissed. People need to be willing to discuss these things in a learned way until we get to some discovery of essential values.
And at the same time, I've been reading a book on Sartrean Ethics, which argues for the opposing idea, that values are completely subjective and we can all be useful if we choose values that we can live up to: "It is up to man himself to give meaning and use to his life...by choosing to value and seek goals that are attainable" (53). Sartre is exciting to read because he's not at all judgmental about people's lapses into bad faith, and his version of the virtuous life is so possible. It feels good to read him. But, as much as I like much of what he says, I believe it's part of the reason for this mess we're in.
If I have to choose a path, then I'm with Taylor on this one. There are some values that exist outside ourselves and that can't be ignored even if it's uncomfortable for us to face the reality of our selfishness and the errors of our ways up to this point. I also agree with Curtis that we have to change the way we express ourselves radically. A personal expression isn't going to do jack shit to change anything. We need to focus less on ourselves, on our art and music and writing and on our bodies, and actually take some risks and suffer a bit to promote real change for the future. We can't change the world from the comfort of the couch. These views take us into far more difficult terrain that's not rewarding in the ways we're used to. It means working for something that will benefit the next generation knowing we might never be remembered for our efforts as we get lost in a sea of protesters, but we can't continue to do so little if we want the next couple of generations to survive. Especially now that Trump is at the helm.
Taylor writes, "We want our lives to have meaning, or weight, or substance, or to grow towards some fullness.... But this means our whole lives. If necessary, we want the future to "redeem" the past, to make it part of a life story which has sense or purpose, to take it up in a meaningful unit" (50). Nietzsche uses these words, "To redeem the past and to transform every 'It was' into an 'I wanted it thus' - that alone do I call redemption" (TSZ-161). We get caught up in linear progressions. The present has to be better than the past, and it all has to add up to something that makes sense to us. When we're in a lull in our life, or hit a crappy part, it's disconcerting that it was all for naught. But if we want our lives to have real substance, then it will only happen if we add our voices to a collective call to action beyond our individual pursuits. The internet makes us feel connected, but it's just an illusion. We have to leave the house and come face-to-face with other human beings willing to go the distance with us.
It's not necessary to succeed, but we have to begin.