On Usefulness

I am so genuinely confused by women who’ve had multiple children AND who are able to show their midriffs. I mean, really, my biggest emotion around this — bigger even than jealousy (although that is there for sure) — is just total incomprehension. It seems to bend the laws of physics. Was there a vitamin I missed? Are they a separate species?

But that is not the essay I’m going to write today.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the fueling power of feeling useful.

Being of actual and real use to someone is a far greater gift than any kitchen utensil, any all-expense-paid vacation, maybe even any post-multiple pregnancy abs. Positive usefulness in another person’s life will make you taller and kinder, your smile wider, your hair bouncier, your heart more open. Feeling useful to someone else might even save you. It has for me, although it seems to be one of those lessons I have to remember to remember every 30 minutes, with a start of happy surprise each time.

There was an entire period of time in late 2014 that — when I conjure it up in my head — the only image that comes to mind is of me facedown on the playroom carpet. No doubt because metaphysically, psychically, emotionally, I was. I had been struggling to feel of value with my work and my family, to feel a sense of real meaning, that I was contributing in a way that was resonating and valued. The part time-ness of both working and parenting meant that of course I felt I was doing neither well, constantly interrupted and too hamstrung at work to reach my full potential, and too distracted and busy to effectively manage the whack-a-moles at home, losing my cool with the kids and going all Babadook far too often. I felt demoralized by own effort – simultaneously exhausted and disappointed in myself on all fronts.

I am incredibly gifted at being able to go from the sense that I am failing at something to the certainty that ALL IS LOST and the only answer is to quickly move to another town and change my name and erase my life, so that Steven will have time to remarry and the kids get used to another mother before too much damage is done and the truly formative years begin. This is about a 90-second journey. Usually, I am lucky enough to either get a friendly phone call, or gin up the strength to pick up what Anne Lamott calls the “1,000 pound phone,” and the effect is almost immediate. WAITASECOND – I don’t need to stage my own death, I just needed to talk to a friend! Huzzah! That’s about a 60 second journey. But the total 2.5-minute process from bottom to top and the taste of that carpet fiber – oh man.

In November of 2014, from my face plant in the carpet, I heard the phone ring. Amazingly, it was a friend I had not spoken to in the near-20 years since college. She told me she was ready to tell her story about sexual assault in college, prompted and emboldened by the recently released Rolling Stone expose (that would later be discredited due to some very poor journalism) on a “culture of rape” at our alma mater, emblematic of the problem on campuses nationwide. “Would you help me tell this,” she asked, “maybe even just a letter to the Board of Visitors?”

I slowly picked myself up off the playroom floor, lint stuck to my cheek – I was reminded of my former self, this younger me who fought in public forums for social justice and women’s equality. And now, I was needed in the present. I was needed!

J and I worked together for months, drafting and redrafting, talking to first amendment lawyers and trying to better understand libel laws and free speech. We were able to eventually place her brave and clear-eyed piece in the Opinion section of the New York Times, (above the fold, I might add) on Sunday, April 4, 2015. This friend is perhaps the most courageous person I know, and she alone dealt with all the emotion, visibility, risk and healing of the piece – a piece which touched hundreds who commented and contacted her (and doubtless thousands more who did not). Recently she told me that she now has a new anniversary, one that supersedes and trumps the assault anniversary, and marks when she told her story publicly, helping to give voice to the thousands assaulted on campuses every year, and offering constructive criticism on a broken judicial system. She is, to me, the very picture of what heroism looks like — as well as what it looks like to heal yourself through helping others.

On the sidelines at her elbow, I felt such intense gratitude. To have been struggling with a feeling of worthlessness in my tiny world, and then be called upon to help a friend find her words and her loudspeaker felt transformational. It surprises every time she thanks me, then and now. And each time I try to tell her that the gift was all mine, the thanks is all mine to give her. She gave me a greater purpose and true usefulness, in the only way it matters. She thought she was asking for help by reaching out to me, but in effect, by needing me she was throwing out a lifeline.

Moving back and forth between the opposite sides of needing and usefulness is like the passing of the peace from hand to hand, and it happens daily in ways both tiny and beautiful.

My best friend and I have intentionally created a sacred space for each other, where we always take the other’s call, and find time to walk through the other’s need, no matter how small, how big, how tangled, how tedious. You can’t do this for many, of course. One or two at the max. But it is a relief to know she is consistently there as a safe couch I can fling myself upon and say, “So, I got this email I don’t how to interpret” or talk through the exact wording of a challenging situation. It works – both because we love each other and because I do the same for her.

Sometimes when she calls me from her office to ask me which flight she should take from DC to Bonn, Germany, I’ll have a pot boiling over on the stove, the older kids fussing about homework and the toddler finding something to turn into a missile. I will strain my brain to follow the pro’s and con’s of different routes and layovers, and my first instinct is to quickly say “Heathrow! Take the Heathrow option!” But my immediate next thought is always – how lucky am I that this friend values and wants and even needs my opinion. Her need transforms me from a frazzled mom who’s trying to time the mac and cheese production with homework completion to someone thinking through which international connections best fit my friend’s priorities and needs. For a little while, I am broader than the kitchen chaos. Not that the kitchen chaos is a negative, but sometimes we all need to be taken out of whatever 10×12 room we are occupying.

Sartre was full of shit. Hell is not other people, hell is isolating yourself while among others. Hell is living in community but not reaching out. When I was a teenager, I would sometimes wake up before the whole house and get in my car and drive around until it was time for school, sometimes for an hour or more. More than once I saw my uncle driving on the same deserted streets, though I don’t think he ever saw me. A gentle and troubled man who later took his own life, he was always a mystery to me and glimpsing him on those pre-dawn drives was as intimate a view of him as I ever got. The memory is crystal clear even now, Donnie smoking a cigarette with his window rolled down, tanned in his white undershirt, driving easy and aimless with one hand, headed towards the interstate while the sky behind him pinked and turned orange. I can’t know what he was thinking on those drives, but in my 16-year-old mind, it felt like we were out there together, cruising empty streets and sharing in a certain loneliness and a restless search for connection. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that my uncle’s lack of asking for help, of saying aloud what he needed, ultimately proved lethal.

Bringing awareness to the fueling power of usefulness has a ripple effect. It’s so easy to think our meaning lies in our intelligence or industry or achievement. But it’s when we reach out with vulnerability that we open ourselves to the experiences that bring purpose and meaning to our lives.   This is the very thing I must remember to remember when I am reluctant to ask for help, to call up and say, “Can you do this for me?” Or even “Do you have a minute to listen?” It always feels like such a big deal to ask, doesn’t it? But what if I could view it as a truly caring, altruistic thing to do for someone else?

It’s worth trying. Because we cannot know how much each other needs to be needed. And because maybe you are out there, right now, in your own personal face plant, eating the turf du jour, battling your own internal demons and hoping and praying the phone might ring and your bat signal gets thrown into the night sky.


16 thoughts on “On Usefulness

    1. Robin, thank you! You, too, needed by so many! And I love your voice and how you so wisely and bravely approach vulnerability as a strength — I loved it in your All Y’all talk awhile back, and in many of your writings.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. So much existential wisdom in this! I love your writing and find it very relatable as I also have to remind myself sometimes to get out of my head and join all these other people. So many awesome people!

    The early dawn driving story exemplifies the eternal search as I see it. I must keep searching for meaning because the world won’t just give it to us freely. And again, meaning is so often found among other beating hearts.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow! I am blown away by your writing Elizabeth and how you can sum up all your feelings so eloquently. You capture the feelings of so many who feel totally inept while trying to be everything to everyone. I wish I still lived in Shreveport so I could get to know you better, but through your blog, I feel like I do know you. Take care of yourself, Steven and those precious ones and keep writing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Debbie, that made me laugh! And in that parallel universe, if some upstart were to come along decades later and say, “Beauvais was full of shit” they’d be well within their rights. Thank you!


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