Feeling Useless

Remedies for an underdiscussed cause of unhappiness.

Posted Dec 23, 2018

Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain
Source: Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

Children can feel useless, the product of their impotence in an adult-controlled world. Teens can feel even more impotent because they believe that, if they were allowed, they could be potent.

Young adults blessed with (some would say saddled with) higher-education-inculcated Big Ideas too often find themselves pulling a beer or barista lever. Even many people who — to use the current argot — launch, by midlife see the dispiriting limitations of their influence, at work, in changing their spouse, even their kids.

And of course, in old age, the decline in physical and mental capability often leads to great dispiritedness, because hope for a better future wanes — The awareness grows of being pushed ever closer to the end of life’s conveyer belt.

What’s a mere mortal to do?

Your child or grandchild

Please resist the temptation to overprotect. Short of allowing your young child to climb a cliff, the liabilities outweigh the benefits. The parent who allows kiddo to climb a tree, literally or figuratively, even unsupervised, is assured of increasing the child’s self-efficacy and self-confidence, not to mention joy. Even if, against the odds, your child falls and breaks a limb, that will heal far faster and more completely than having gotten the disempowering message that the world is a dangerous place and that they are ill-equipped to deal with it. And don’t tell me about the risk of becoming a quadriplegic or dying. That risk is trivial. One must make decisions based on probabilities, hence the foolishness of the U.S. Government making everyone take their shoes off before getting on an airplane, because one schmuck hid a bomb in his heel.  

Indeed, previous generations of parents were far more likely to let their kids play unfettered. Yet today, despite the long decline in crime rate per Kim Brooks’ book Small Animals: Parenting in the Age of Fear, many parents have grown overprotective, perhaps in part for fear that some zeitgeist-soaked parent will deem them irresponsible for allowing Junior to play outside unsupervised or, per Brooks, left in a cool car for a few minutes while Mom ran into the store. (She was reported to the cops by one of those zeitgeist-soaked parents, found guilty, and forced to do community service.)

Young and midlife adults

What about the millions of underemployed, under-influential adults? In a world of 7.7 billion people, relatively few have major influence. Even the president of the world’s only superpower has been rendered impotent by the media, which has manipulated the public into a paroxysm of surety that he is the anti-Christ, who, if allowed, would wreck humankind. Because so few jobs, even those ostensibly in “public policy,” affect much policy let alone improve lives, the most likely way to increase agency is to act where you clearly can influence 1 on 1: Mentor someone at work, be a thoughtful, two-way communicative parent. Or volunteer for a local charity that you're confident makes a difference. Or start an ethical business that improves life. My favorite idea is what I call ProMatch: websites matching consumers with professionals: psychologists, doctors, architects, etc.

Old age

Then there are the not-golden years. Sure, that's a particularly good time for mentorship, passing on the wisdom of your life and perhaps of the ages to the next generation or even to your age peers, even, yes, offering unwanted advice to that stranger on the bus. But there’s no getting around the elderly's relative impotence.

Fortunately, there are ways to potentiate even one's later years, maybe even saving the best for last. Because few employers will hire "senior citizens" to do something important, can you hire yourself? Is there a project or business you have the bandwidth to try, a last hurrah? Perhaps your awareness of your place on said conveyer belt can fuel you to go out in a blaze of glory or at least to not fade out like a fireplace's last ember.

A more likely source of elder usefulness is a bequest. Many older people with the wisdom to have pursued a lifetime of saving over materialism can wisely rather than reflexively bequeath their savings. Sure, you might do the standard thing — leave it to your kids and equally — but in your situation and in the larger scheme of things, is that wisest? Think of what each of your kids would do with the money. Think of the extent to which that would empower rather than debilitate as it does to trust fund babies and welfare recipients for whom the money is a paralytic. Might some or even most of your hard-earned savings do more good bequeathed elsewhere: to a needy person(s) you know or to a charity you believe generates much good per dollar expended, especially where your dollars would — unlike if given to a large charity — be more than a grain of sand tossed onto a beach?

I’d be less than authentic if I suggested that these elder tips transcend the recognition that nothing can preclude most older people feeling ever more useless. When those feelings descend, if you can't think of something to make yourself useful, don’t be afraid to use the time-honored, shrink-discouraged denial, suppression, and distraction, for example: “The end is still a long way away. And, sure, I may forget some things but the accumulated wisdom trumps. Onward and upward!”

The takeaway

Sometimes, all of us feel useless, but I'm not a fan of the standard advice: “acceptance.” At the risk of ending with a very not-Buddhist exhortation: Fight it!

I read this aloud on YouTube.