Tuesday, January 25, 2011


"Imagination is the act of celebrating the useless"--James Carroll.

What is useful?

I found myself thinking about that question this weekend. The above quote jumped out at me from a book I was reading in the library of the retreat house where I've squirreled myself away for the freezing cold weekend. What followed was the epiphany that life is totally useless.

If you think about what general relativity says about the center of the universe--you realize that you are it. The center is the frame of reference. You can't have a frame of reference outside your own, no matter how hard you try. Then think about the oddities of quantum mechanics--for instance, I'd mentioned in a previous posting that we blink in and out of existence 186,000 times a day. We don't notice this for two reasons--one is that it's happening non-simultaneously on a particle level. The other reason is that our brains have filters. We can't SEE it happening, just as we can't see many other details. In short--we fill in the gaps with our imagination. Reality is created by us, and everyone's experience of reality is going to be different from their neighbor's.

In academia, there has been an attack on the humanities in recent years. Degrees in philosophy, religion, literature, and languages are seen as "useless". What is deemed useful? Those degrees that prepare you for a vocation. Accounting, business, technology, medicine. The last of these has to do with preserving our physical bodies, something impossible in the very long term. Technology is a here-today-gone-tomorrow career; what you're trained for today is obsolete tomorrow. The first two have to do with money--balancing books, selling either products or services. Money is a grand hallucination; in this day and age, it is no more than numbers going back and forth between computer servers. If it is something physical, it's usually rocks or paper given an arbitrary value. We spend a lot of money on things we don't need--and business convinces us to do so. In the grand scheme of things, these fields don't have any more meaning or important than the liberal arts. No one will care how many widgets you sold in 50 years, never mind 10,000 years.

"Useful" careers are presumably those that allow you to achieve financial stability. You can get a job, buy a house, put money in the bank--for what? Well, to meet needs, but often people want to do more than just meet their needs. They want to have leisure. In short--the goal is to save money so that you can spend your quality time being "useless". Most people aren't into having demanding careers just to work for endless hours year round. Unless that career is so wonderful it's like leisure. And leisure is...well, you know.

What is life without imagination? I would suggest it isn't life at all; it's state of living death. You can't have hope without imagination. You can't make any kind of advances in any area without imagination. We create the world. So why do we disdain the professions that are about imagining? Literature, art, music, and religious ritual are all "useless", and that uselessness is what makes us human, the thing that allows us to connect with each other. They don't have a "purpose" other than to tell a kind of story. And our consciousness is nothing but stories. Your whole life has a narrative, whether you're aware of it or not. Either you created it, or society created it for you.

Carroll makes the statement that it's not about what you have or what you do, it's the fact that you are. That alone makes you worthy of respect, and that should be the only criterion. Money, position, and productivity do not make you more respect-worthy than those engaged in so-called "useless" endeavors. The wealthy businessmen is not worthy of any more respect than the starving artist. Both should be equally respected.

This is a tough thing to swallow. We want to believe that our lives have a "purpose". We believe that success is connected to hard work. We believe that wealth and status are the fruits of hard work. None of that is true. Think of how many people work hours and hours every day and still don't have enough to make ends meet. Or, even among those who can meet their obligations--how many are in jobs they hate. As Joseph Campbell said, "When you get off the beam just to make money, you have given up your life." And your life is, of course--useless.

Uselessness is a virtue. It means connecting with and helping others for no damn good reason. It means creating worlds that are interesting, even if not entirely logical or "productive". There's no need to drive at anything, towards one temporal goal after another. Everything just is, and there's no reason to feel guilty about that. Everyone just is, and they need no special qualifications to be respected. There's no need to "perfect" anything. To "perfect" is to finish (perficere). To be finished is to die. You just need to connect with others while you're living.

So, if you're a liberal arts major, an artist, a writer--and someone questions the value of your investment in your future--remember that you're investing in the future of being human. That goes a lot farther than most bank accounts.

Oh, and incidentally--I was listening to Jon Stewart's Daily Show with guest Neil deGrasse Tyson today. Tyson finished his interview with this quote: "Imagination is more important than knowledge." That quote was from Einstein.

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