What Good Have I Been- the fear of being useless

Pippin wakes up in a vision of hell as the prisoner of the orcs and a voice of condemnation cries out against him.

“I wish Gandalf had never persuaded Elrond to let us come,” he thought. “What good have I been? Just a nuisance: a passenger, a piece of luggage. And now I have been stolen and I am just a piece of luggage for the Orcs. I hope Strider or someone will come and claim us! But ought I to hope for it? Won’t that throw out all the plans? I wish I could get free!”

Of course the voice of condemnation is in his own head and that is where such voices always sound the loudest. Throughout the journey the young hobbits have been surrounded by intent and capability. Aragorn, Gandalf, Boromir, Legolas and Gimli are all battle-hardened warriors. Frodo and Sam share the task that must be fulfilled, the destruction of the Ring. But Merry and Pippin have no skill as warriors and no great task to fulfill. All they have brought with them is their loyal friendship. At this moment the gift they have offered since the unmasking of the conspiracy at the cottage at Crickhollow in The Shire seems to have very little value. They have simply been a nuisance and they have always been “looked after”.

As I speak to those who are growing older one of the things that strikes me is that this fear of being “a nuisance: a passenger, a piece of luggage” is one of the greatest of all their fears. Perhaps we carry that fear with us all through our lives. Only at one time in my life did I ever stand in the Dole Queue but it remains a powerful memory. At that moment I felt useless. The bus station in my town was just opposite the office where I had to sign on and each time I got off the bus I would take a walk around the streets for a few moments so that no one would see me walk straight from the bus in order to join the queue. I remember too the feeling of relief when I got work as a day labourer with an employment agency. No work felt too demeaning. I was paying my way, making my contribution to the household of which I was a part. Even now as I work freelance and find my work to be profoundly fulfilling there is a part of me that still seeks to keep the feeling of uselessness at bay. Will I be content and at peace in my old age? It is a discipline, the discipline of delight that I am still seeking to learn though I pray for it each day.

Next week we will think about what Merry and Pippin, the luggage of the Orcs, seek to do in their misery. The clue lies in the last phrase of the quotation of Pippin’s speech: “I wish I could get free!” But this week I invite you to share in their misery. Not in order to wallow in it but in order to examine yourself, becoming aware of the voices of condemnation that shout loudest in you, perhaps of your own fear of being “useless”. Image

9 thoughts on “What Good Have I Been- the fear of being useless

  1. Very much so, Stephen. The voice telling us we’re useless is one of the most poisonous and insidious there is. It particularly concerns me with regards to old people. You wonder what kind of pressure the elderly feel under when you see phrases in the paper like “ageing population”, “pressure on the NHS”, etc.

    It’s a very strong voice in all of us. More so, these days, I feel, than in the past. We live in a more atomised society now. It’s harder to sense how we fit in to the wider community and what constructive role we can play. Because, deep down, we all want to serve. We all want to help. We all want to chip in and put our shoulders to the wheel. This is why the British were said to begenerally happier during WW2 than before or since. People felt they had a part to play in a crucial struggle that had much deeper and wider resonance than anything they had experienced before in daily life.

    Which takes us back to The Lord of the Rings, of course and ideas of community, fellowship, quest, meaning, purpose and value. Because, as you know, absolutely no-one in that book is useless. Everyone has a role. They might be good, they might be evil, but none of the Dramatis Personae are useless. Which is exactly as it should be 🙂

    All the very best,

    John.

    • I entirely agree with you and it was my experience of speaking with older people that first led to this reflection. But then I remembered my early fear of being useless when unemployed. We have been training our young people to feel that they are only useful when productive for a very long time.

  2. This is indeed one of our greatest fears – which I suppose is why the popular media and the government try to use it so stridently in order to create the shame of uselessness for those out of work etc.
    That condemning voice might have been in Pippin’s own head, but there was a very real sense that, up to this point in the story, it was right! That’s the hardest thing to bear. It’s not surprising that the elderly often feel a burden when they are frequently referred to as ‘a drain on the NHS’ or ‘bed-blockers’.
    Of course, we who know the story, could easily tell Pippin how these experiences will one day make him useful and significant… but I am not sure that is the point of what you are saying here. John is right in suggesting ‘we need a culture of being not doing.’ Our ‘worth’ and ‘value’ must be beyond our ‘usefulness.’ It is difficult to visualise in a culture that is so work oriented though!

  3. Yesterday I visited a man in hospital. Of course I knew so much more of his story than the hospital staff as he had told me some of it. In particular I have in mind the photo taken on his wedding day 60 years ago and see the faces of two young people looking confidently and happily back at me. We carry our stories with us wherever we go. How much we need people who will pay attention to them and retell them. By the way, I think the hospital staff are caring for them as best they can. There was a good feel about that ward.

  4. On Saturday, we held an exhibition for the village’s oral history project (that I have been helping out with). In one room we had an exhibition of lots of old photographs. What I loved the most was how when people were talking about the places and the people who lived in various houses and about their childhoods etc, they seemed to lose years. Even physically they seemed to grow younger. That, again, was all about the stories they carried with them.

  5. Wonderful site you have here but I was wondering if you knew of any forums that cover the
    same topics talked about here? I’d really like to be a part of group where I can get responses from other knowledgeable people that share
    the same interest. If you have any suggestions, please let me know.
    Bless you!

    • Hi Szyba, thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I am glad that you like the site. What I do is to read and then comment on The Lord of the Rings each week. The one you commented on is an early posting when I began to publish on WordPress two years ago. All the conversations that follow come from the thoughts that come to mind. I have not joined other forums. I do hope that you find the kind of forum that you are looking for and if you visit and comment on my work again I will be delighted!

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