Tuesday, 23 October 2018

The holy grail of being "useful"

How many of us in our life goals wanted to do something useful? Not just for ego or for profit. Something that genuinely benefits others, addresses inequality in our society or specifically aims to assist the disempowered and the vulnerable? Of course, many of us working in a whole range of occupations do - human rights campaigners, environmental activists, journalists, nurses, lawyers, teachers, social workers, carers, youth workers, therapists, counsellors, charity workers, community organisers, MPs, doctors, vets and all the others I haven't mentioned.

I was recently reading a Facebook post by a very talented artist (@GillGamble), who it turns out spent a difficult year in medical school before realising that this evidently was not her vocation in life. Now as an artist and storyteller, she feels that finally she has found a role which is important and plays to her talents but which doesn't play to those conventional ideas of useful occupations.

I realised how much I had struggled with this notion of finding yourself a "useful" occupation and how, in fact, it is OK to sometimes let it go. Not because helping others isn't important. But sometimes, something you think of as "useful", an idea that you imposed on yourself at some point or was imposed upon you, isn't actually where your individual strengths lie.

In my pursuit of the holy grail of "usefulness" I have worked and volunteered in a range of roles; charity events co-ordinator, youth officer, paediatric nurse, baby yoga instructor, breastfeeding supporter, stay at home mum, and in my free time, written this blog and shared ideas about modern feminism and parenting. A trajectory I try to describe as a "Portfolio Career" - and which I like to think has made me a more rounded person! All of these roles have given me great satisfaction at various points. And all of these roles have left me feeling slightly lacking. That something is missing.

Because actually you want to feel really good at what you do. I'm not just talking about external validation here - like a positive comment or a great grade. But like when you know in your heart of hearts that you are really good at this. There were moments when I felt good at what I did, like I'd made a positive contribution. A lot of the time, I over-complicated things in an effort to constantly improve or be more efficient. Or I felt overwhelmed by the responsibility. Or a bit alone and out on a limb.

My latest reincarnation is as an MA student in Medieval and Early Modern History. It feels crazy and also somehow right. A luxury to be able to study as a single mum of three but one, which just maybe might lead me somewhere that does play to my talents. Maybe learning and writing and researching with other geeky people is where I need to be. I had to do all those other things to get here and I'm glad I did them. But now I can appreciate that something I didn't consider "useful" actually is. Not in a straightforward vaccinating a child kind of way. But as a lecturer pointed out during our university  induction, the pursuit of knowledge is important. In this world of entrenched standpoints and conflicting news, learning, discussing, debating is important. And of course, I want to continue my interests in telling women's stories and health and power and that is a contribution, however small, to a body of critical understanding about who we are and what we want for our future.

The other thing, of course, is that one role is unlikely to reflect all sides of you. My caring, patient side is more than utilised by my role as a parent. That "background" role which is, in fact, life. My 6 year old did hilariously tell me to "make yourself useful" once, obviously copying my phrase, but I don't think I've ever felt more indignant! Bloody 24 hours non-stop indispensable I am to kids, the various rescue animals we have living in our house, etc etc.  It's not rocket science but it's easy to forget: you do feel better and happier in your parenting role when your other needs are being met. It is OK not to be utterly consumed by the service of others. Your self esteem and sense of identity matters too.

I'm sharing these thoughts because, as a parent, I would like my kids to contribute positively to society. But maybe I'll just tell them  to go with what they're good at. Go with what they enjoy. Then maybe that positive experience will in turn lead to a positive contribution and engagement that comes from a better place, not an earnest but misguided desperation. If you care about others, you can't help but be useful in some way or other.

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