There’s been something ragged lurking at the edge of my contentment, poking me occasionally with a sharp feeling of emptiness. I’ve been asking whatever it is to come in for tea and tell me about itself, but it refused to show its face until a couple of evenings ago, as I was backing out of my driveway, of all times and places.
I suddenly remembered an oft-repeated command, a theme, really, of my growing up: “Don’t just stand there – make yourself useful.” Feeling “useful” seems to be the name of that discontent that has been hanging about just outside my awareness.
I was brought up to be useful, to look around at what was needing to be done, or helped, or fixed, or attended to, and then to do that, without waiting for someone else to point it out and then tell me what to do. The washer is finished, so hang out the clothes. The floor is dirty, so sweep it. The lightbulb is burnt out, so change it.
It wasn’t entirely a bad way to be brought up; I became independent, developed skills in figuring out problems and how to fix them, and found myself welcomed by my friends’ parents in their homes, and later by groups because I, well, made myself useful.
Then I had a whole career that revolved around making myself useful. For 30+ years I was counseling, problem solving, advising, nurturing, mentoring, and otherwise helping people. Trying to make things better for people was how I made myself useful, and it all became a surprisingly big part of who I am. Now that I’m retired, there seems to be an empty spot that used to be filled up with feeling “useful.”
There are lessons to be learned here. The most obvious one: Just being is enough. Just being is all that’s required. I don’t have to earn a place on this earth. I don’t have to earn connections with others by being useful. The people I love, the people who love me don’t expect me to make myself useful as a condition of friendship and connection. I have a place with them that is freely given, just because.
I was backing out of the driveway to go to the first rehearsal of the Verdi Requiem. It was the first time the three separate choruses were combined, as well as the first time we worked with our conductor. The rehearsal was immensely challenging. It was the first time I had to find my alto line against the never-before-heard second chorus. Our class spent the semester just trying to learn correct pitches and to pronounce the Latin words without southern drawls; now the conductor wanted nuance and shading from our voices. The lid of the grand piano opened to face the front of the stage, so the pitches sounded by the pianist never made it to my spot at the top corner of the risers, as far away from the piano as it was possible to be.
Still, we made music. We made the Requiem come to life there in that empty theater. Our voices swelled in response to the conductor’s gestures, then dropped, when asked, to tender whispers. The beauty and majesty that Verdi created came forth, whether because of us or in spite of us, I don’t know. But needing to feel useful was forgotten and irrelevant.
What I remembered in its place is that making music is all about being – it’s not about earning a place, it’s not about being useful. Making music is about being completely and fully alive, and experiencing each moment that the music contains. In all those moments of the Verdi, there was no emptiness, no doubt, no discontent, no sadness for anything left behind, no longing for anything yet to come. There was just my heart, my whole being, filled with joy.