Rhetoric of Usefulness

September 10, 2009 | 24 comments
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“Usefulness” was a coveted characteristic of the late-1800s LDS woman. In Woman’s Exponent eulogistic poetry—a very typical Victorian woman’s style and theme— Mormon women poets consistently praised other women for being “useful.” I know, I know: what a compliment. But Eliza R. Snow explained why LDS people should try to be useful in a statement in the Woman’s Exponent: “What is true greatness? In human character, usefulness constitutes greatness. . . . In the estimation of holy intelligences, the most useful character or person is the greatest.”

That must have been a great comfort to pioneer Mormons diligently working away at their pioneer tasks and the daily duties of feeding, tending, and raising a family. Household and farm chores became the makings of godhood.

It seems to me that we—much more unconsciously—have maintained the “useful” traditions of our fathers and mothers. Here’s a smattering of examples:

”A Message Concerning Preparation for Relief Measures” (1933) quoted in the 2003 Ensign suggests that the LDS leaders persuade members to stay out of debt and be frugal because “by no other course will our people place themselves in that position of helpful usefulness to the world which the Lord intends we shall take.” The same article reminds members of Acts 20:35: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

“Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel” encourages saints to be “willing” and “wear the worker’s seal” as they “put their shoulder to the wheel” and “push along.” Other verses glorify those with “helping hands” and those who “don’t stand idly looking on.”

The hymn “More Holiness Give Me” explicitly equates being “more fit for the kingdom” and “more, Savior, like thee” with being “more used.”

Numerous scripture references speak about being “instruments in the hands of God,” or, in other words, being useful to God through missionary work or in some other way—and numerous talks by General Authorities quote those scriptures and expound on those ideas.

At times I have found the idea of usefulness to be very motivating. I was a shy child. At some point in time, I realized that God needed me (I’m not generalizing here; shyness is not a sin) to be more open, more able to speak in public, and more able to handle social situations. I am more useful to him if I am less withdrawn and introverted. The idea of being useful to God in the building of his kingdom has motivated me to learn skills, acquire knowledge, and alter parts of my personality so I will be a suitable instrument in His hands.

However, I am now questioning the usefulness of “usefulness.” I acquired some permanent health problems a few years ago. Now that I feel dramatically less useful than I used to, I’m wondering how helpful the rhetoric of usefulness is. On good days, I think, “Well, I’m being used to my capacity, and God knew this would be my capacity. It’s not a very great capacity, but I do what I can.” On bad days, I think, “Sure, I’m useful. I’m useful for everyone else to practice their charitable instincts on,” which is a rather depressing thought to one raised with an ethic of hard work. I sit while others decide whether to serve me. It stings.

This is a bit more than the old “we can all give help and sometimes we need to accept help” type of comment. Trust me, I can accept a casserole when my baby is born as well as anyone. The question is one of when needing help is your permanent condition. What if—for the rest of this mortal life—you will be taking rather than giving? Who can help but remember that it is more blessed to give? How “useful” to her family and the kingdom of God is a disabled mother? Or a disabled child? Or a mentally handicapped person? The questions are abhorrent because they equate the value of life with utility. But doesn’t the rhetoric of usefulness set us up to do just that?

I realize that all of us are more or less useful to God. We are all less obedient, faithful, or willing than we could be. So, yes, in a sense all of us are handicapped; we are not as useful to God in the building of His kingdom as a perfect person would be. Yet obedience, faithfulness, or willingness are generally within a person’s capacity to control; physical, mental, and emotional issues may be stunningly less so. Is a person excused from the rhetoric of usefulness if he or she is mentally, emotionally, or physically disabled? Can I opt out of singing, “More used would I be / more Savior like thee”?

Is it really more Christ-like to be more useful?

My husband’s mission president was once teaching us about obedience. He said, “If God wants you to sit there and twiddle your thumbs, you do it.” For years, I’ve (ironically) found that saying to be a rousing call to action; I like to work hard doing whatever God wants me to do. Now that I am less useful, I hate the idea of twiddling my thumbs for God; I find that it is much easier said than done. Even on days when I can’t do much else.

Synonyms for “Useful”—helpful, practical, functional, of use, constructive, positive, valuable, handy

Synonyms for “Useless”—ineffective, hopeless, of no use, a waste of time, futile, ineffectual, inadequate, worthless

24 Responses to Rhetoric of Usefulness

  1. Sara R on September 10, 2009 at 8:47 pm

    I went through a bout with cancer a few years ago (past tense, thankfully!) The illness did make me less useful, and I found that being less useful made me more susceptible to depression. So I actively looked for useful things I could do with a cloudy mind and a tired body. It was hard to find things, but I did find a few: catching up the kids’ scrapbooks, scanning in old pictures, doing genealogy. Three years later, and I’m now useful in the traditional way, and the scrapbooks haven’t been updated since. But I’m thankful that I did it then.

    Being useful is serving and using your talents. You do the best you can with what you’ve been given, and God’s grace takes care of the rest.

  2. S. G. on September 10, 2009 at 9:13 pm

    In many ways afflictions and handicaps are or can be the most useful things – though I haven’t checked the reference, I believe the Lord Jesus Christ says in the new testament in regards to a handicapped person, that he was born and in his condition so that the glory of God may be manifest. That is a very useful position.

    Similarly Larry H. Miller was told preceding his death, when he asked, I believe an apostle, what he was supposed to learn from this trial, that maybe he wasn’t supposed to learn from the trial so much as others were supposed to learn from his example, of how he accepted and passed through the trial.

    That may not be easy medicine to swallow, to feel that the trial that causes us to be made useless- according to our definition of useful- is actually how God is make us useful to others, as we become an example to them of how to endure trials, and do so well and with grace.

    Also I am not sure that it is always better to give than to receive- it seems that concept may be meant in regards to receiving in a self-centered, or normal manner. I think that quote is trying to combat the normal focus on self of the world and the natural man to strive to get taken care of. I think it is different than receiving in a time or situation of need. If we are put in a position of consistently being a recipient over a long period of time, against our own natural desires, it can become, over time, an opportunity to give to others an understanding of how to conduct oneself in a situation of vulnerability or disability, and a demonstration to others that they should, and of how to, admit their own need for help, by our demonstration of such. This is a contribution, and opportunity to ‘give’ that should not be overlooked.

    And for the record, I recognize these may be unpleasant words to read, and not ‘easy to swallow’- but I say them with that recognition and thus hopefully some sensitivity to how hard it can be to accept this perspective, when one is having to give up their desires and previous definition of ‘useful’ – especially when we got a lot out of being useful, for ourselves and our self-esteem, personal needs, desires, etc. I also say it from the perspective of a person who, though it is still a struggle, has had to try to adopt this perspective, not just from intellectual conjecture, but from long-experience having to abandon many of my desires, due to long-term debilitating conditions in my life.

    What it all comes down to is your definition of ‘useful.’ I think that our heavenly Father’s definition of that is often drastically different than ours. In the modern world people often speak of ‘making a difference’- I believe that is similar to what Our Father’s perspective is – but I believe how that is accomplished, what type of difference. and what is required (for instance, physical, mental or other ability) to ‘make a difference’ or be ‘useful’, is in His eyes, likely to be radically different than in ours.

  3. S. G. on September 10, 2009 at 9:30 pm

    Just to add, one more thought:
    I honestly believe from my own hard-own experience, but still as one who is far from perfect, that the thing that makes us most useful from God’s perspective is a contrite spirit and a broken heart.

    After that I would say it is a believing mind, as a complement to the former that builds on and amplifies them.

    No amount of physical ability, or resources will ever make up for the lack of these things- because they cannot ‘be controlled nor handled’ except first with a broken heart and a contrite spirit.

    Even when this broken heart and contrite spirit exist in a person, they do not need physical or even mental abilities to be useful, the example and spirit that radiates from them is one of the greatest impacts I have ever seen and I believe exists.

    Physical capacity, resources, and even mental resources can add to these, but are not required, again for the influence of a person with a broken heart and a contrite spirit to have their influence, or ‘use’.

    The examples of Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail when speaking to the guards though, in chains, is instructive. Jesus made himself of most use by completely surrendering his life and body, not by retaining these ‘resources’- and the only reason he did so was because he first gave over his heart and spirit to the Father. It was these sacrifices in and of themselves, only that made him worthy and able to take again His body back up, and to become of the greatest usefulness to all humankind- though his thus-completed Atonement. That is the beautiful paradox of the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

  4. Kylie on September 10, 2009 at 9:33 pm

    S.G., I appreciate what you are saying about the definition of “useful.” That’s one of the reasons why I listed the synonyms at the bottom (right out of my thesaurus); I think they show the failings of the words–or at least our perceptions of what it means to be useful. I like your simple definition of “making a difference.”

  5. Tatiana on September 10, 2009 at 10:19 pm

    One the one hand, we’re all profitless servants. We’re here to learn. So we can learn a whole lot in periods of disability, pain, and humility. That’s one way we can serve. Another way is by appreciating more the joys and beauty that do come our way. Somehow when we’re unable to do a lot, we can appreciate things more, maybe because we have more time for contemplation.

    Another way I can serve is to pray with all the energy of my soul for those around me. Thank goodness I still can do that. Because of illness I may not be able to do everything I had hoped. I totally agree that our worth is not due to our usefulness. I’ve had to reexamine the ways I thought about what usefulness means. Still, it’s possible to find ways to find joy in being useful, even if only in a tiny way. Rescuing a spider from the sink may not be universe-shattering, but to that spider I was useful. When I contrast our size with the size of the universe, I realize that usefulness is a relative thing.

    There’s not a whole lot even the most powerful human can do to make a big difference even in our one galaxy out of billions. So I don’t mind putting a sincere prayer, or one rescued spider up against the contributions of the mighty. We all do our part.

  6. Stephanie on September 10, 2009 at 10:41 pm

    I understand what you are saying about feeling useful/useless. In Elder Uchtdorf’s First Presidency Message in the Ensign this month (the one about women), he says:

    May I invite you to rise to the great potential within you. But don’t reach beyond your capacity. Don’t set goals beyond your capacity to achieve. Don’t feel guilty or dwell on thoughts of failure. Don’t compare yourself with others. Do the best you can, and the Lord will provide the rest.

    I know it is meant to be a comfort, and I try to feel comforted by the thought that I am not expected to reach beyond my own capacity. But, I have a really hard time accepting that there is a limit to my capacity! I’ve always been “superwoman” at everything I did until now. It is extremely humbling. It’s hard not to be able to do everything in a church/culture that prides ourself on doing everything. Anyways, I hear your frustrations.

  7. ZD Eve on September 10, 2009 at 10:42 pm

    I am more useful to him if I am less withdrawn and introverted.

    I’ve often thought that given the vagaries of my particular personality, sometimes the greatest service I can render others and therefore God is to be as withdrawn and introverted as possible.

  8. Kylie on September 10, 2009 at 11:27 pm

    Thanks, ZD Eve. I laughed. I guess I should accept the notion that this is Heavenly Father’s method of getting me out of the way. Perhaps he is telling me that I should spend less time doing and more time reclining in bed, eating chocolate and reading novels.

  9. Mike H. on September 11, 2009 at 3:47 am

    I’ve been dealing with sleep apnea, depression, and being slightly autistic. I have 2 autistic sons as well. So, I get told by ward members (& leaders) I’m lazy, or too weak. I get told that if I’m righteous & diligent enough, that my 2 sons autism would go away. I get told that doing too much Family History & Temple work is the reason I don’t have a job, and also “caused” my 2 son’s autism.

    I noticed that some people in church don’t like comments by me, even if it’s a GA quote, unless they appeal to their ego. So, how I am not supposed to feel useless?

    Part of the problem is that too many make some very rash judgments about others. I think outward appearance is very overused in the church of how we view others worth. Someone we may think ill of maybe more useful to the Gospel than it appears.

  10. Justine on September 11, 2009 at 11:17 am

    On an academic level, I am happy to try and be an example of cheerily bearing my burdens. But on a more practical level, how do I teach my children to work and to be contributors when they see their mother unable to do so?

    Part of me still fights to muscle through my days living my old life because then I can show my children that I’m not just ‘lazy’. Part of me does it because I have spent my life defined by words like runner, writer, cook, gardener, active. I know I exist outside those words, but I’m not sure what I look like without them. Napper, slow, trembling, unsure on her feet, and tired aren’t words I want to replace the old words.

    Watching my children serve me is the most difficult experience of my life. It’s supposed to be the other way around, isn’t it?

  11. Alison Moore Smith on September 11, 2009 at 1:08 pm

    Similarly Larry H. Miller was told preceding his death, when he asked, I believe an apostle, what he was supposed to learn from this trial, that maybe he wasn’t supposed to learn from the trial so much as others were supposed to learn from his example, of how he accepted and passed through the trial.

    About the time of his death, one of the interviews published about Miller in the newspaper featured a number of statements about how he would do things differently and how others should not follow his example. The two things that I recall were the time and attention given to his family and his health.

    He was “useful” in lots of ways, but he neglected some of the most important, in his own words.

  12. Bob on September 11, 2009 at 1:08 pm

    I really hope all can find peace in the life changes Kylie addresses.
    Me? I was raised to be an Oxen and to muscle the family’s wagon across the plains.
    It was not just the “Rhetoric of Usefulness”, it was the “Gospel of Work”. My parents were from Mormon Villages, and honorary BYs.
    For me, getting old now… is a hard transition.

  13. Kylie on September 11, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    I thought of aging when I was writing the original post, Bob. I’m glad you brought it up. My grandmother has very little vision left after the last few years fighting macular degeneration; she really does not want outside help, but she needs it. If we live long enough, we’ll all get there–some of us more gracefully than others, apparently.

  14. Kylie on September 11, 2009 at 1:55 pm

    Justine, I can relate. It’s my family that bears the brunt of this; I’m sure the “outside” world doesn’t know much is wrong . . . yet; that will come in its own degenerative time. Watching the way I’ve labelled myself crumble around me makes me feel like I’m a teenager with an identity crisis. And, like you said, some of the most difficult labels to adjust are those attached to our “most important, eternal roles,” such as wife and mother.

  15. Raymond Takashi Swenson on September 11, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    I believe Jedediah M. Grant described Brigham Young according to a standard of “usefulness”:

    “I can’t undertake to explain Brigham Young to your Atlantic citizens, or expect you to put him at his value. Your great men Eastward are to me like your ivory and pearl-handled table knives, balanced handles, more shiny than the inside of my watch case; but, with only edge enough to slice bread and cheese or help spoon victuals, and all alike by the dozen one with another. Brigham is the article that sells out West with us — between a Roman cutlass and a beef butcher knife, the thing to cut up a deer or cut down an enemy, and that will save your life or carve your dinner every bit as well, though the handpiece is buck horn and the case a hogskin hanging in the breech of your pantaloons. You, that judge men by the handle and sheath, how can I make you know a good BLADE?”

    We get callings, we go on missions, we clean the meetinghouse, we visit our home teaching and visiting teaching families, we work at the bishop’s storehouse or on a welfare farm–It is no accident that the term for a loyal Mormon is “active”. Of course, if our capacities are foreshortened, we know the Lord does not expect more of us than what we have, but the direction we commit ourselves to go in is toward giving of our time, talents, and blessings to build up the Kingdom of God. And we fully expect that we will at least occasionally be stretched up to the limits of our capacities in doing so.

    During the First Century, Roman slaves were often given names that meant “useful”, such as Onesimus, the slave of the Christian Philemon, who ran away from his master in the region near Ephesus, found himself in rome, and became a faithful follower of Paul, who was there under house arrest awaiting his hearing before the emperor. Paul sends him back to Philemon, with an epistle asking his master, who had the right under Roman law to take his life, to instead accept him as a new brother in Christ.

    Over thirty years later, the saints in Ephesus were encouraged to follow their bishop, named Onesimus. We don’t know if it is the same man, but any man with that name was probably a former slave. He was now “useful” to his brothers and sisters in the church.

    And that is the standard we hold ourselves to: to be “useful” in whatever capacity we are called to be, as well as to do many things of our own free will and bring to pass much righteousness. Our usefulness to others may not touch as many lives as a leader like Brigham Young, or even a bishop like Onesimus, but if we make a difference in a single life, how great, we are told, will be our joy with him–or her.

  16. Bob on September 11, 2009 at 4:23 pm

    #15: Thank you Raymond! I had long ago misplaced the story of the ” knife”..now I have it again. (Maybe I will start posting under ‘Onesimus’?)

  17. Daniel on September 11, 2009 at 6:47 pm

    Rather than the rhetoric of usefulness, I prefer to call it the “cult of usefulness,” which in the Church is not unexpected.

    As the product of modernity, the Restored Church (with its “modern prophets”) has fully embraced and sanctified utilitarianism and instrumental reason: the rationality we draw on when we calculate the most economical application of means to any given end. Maximum efficiency, the best cost-output ratio, are its measures of success.

    As the old pre-modern orders have been swept away, and society has lost its sacred structure, social arrangements and modes of action are no longer grounded in the great chain of being, the divine order of things, or the will of God. The LDS Churches are stripped of pomp, ritual, icon, and symbol. Church buildings and programs have been redesigned to maximize the efficiency with which the “happiness and well-being” of the most individuals is provided (as Bentham, Hume, and others recommended).

    Similarly, the creatures that surround us have lost the significance that accrued to their sacred relationships with us, and are now treated as raw materials or instruments for our Church projects. Things that ought to be determined by other criteria are decided in terms of efficiency, cost-benefit analysis, and the maximization of output. The demand for the Church to continue to achieve economic and numerical growth; the justification of unequal treatment among members, who are mere numbers: these “utilities” make us insensitive to the needs of individuals, the environment, and “fellowship.” Blinded by the cult of usefulness and its instrumental reason, we unwittingly engage in grotesque calculations that are like putting dollar assessments on human lives. We want to know how many visits were made, what percent are inactive, how many have enrolled. We no longer treat others as whole persons, with a life story, but instead see them as the locus of and target for a nexus of Ward callings, auxiliary responsibilities, and “quality assurance” processes whereby righteousness is mass produced. Friendships become quick, shoddy, and replaceable by the next Ward realignment or the new change in leadership and the altered constellation of networks that brings new stars to the forefront of the Ward and Stake. The programs of the Church become impersonal mechanisms – the kind of Church institutional structures Weber called “the iron cage”.

    Bentham, Hume, Mill & Mill, Hutcheson, Smith, Edgeworth, and Sidgwick would be proud; but I’m not sure what Jesus would think.

  18. Kylie on September 11, 2009 at 10:58 pm

    Ouch, Daniel. That’s quite an indictment of the church. I guess I can see where you’re coming from, though I have to say that the outcomes you described (numbers and percentages, shoddy friendships, impersonal mechanisms, etc.) have not been my typical interaction with the church.

    Actually, some of the things that are helping me get through my life right now are fabulous friends who have long since moved out of my ward, and ward and stake leaders who are concerned about finding ways for me serve without exhausting me or my family.

    I’m sure what you are describing happens, especially given the variety of personalities who serve and lead in the church. Unfortunately, until a few years ago, I was probably one of the people unconsciously perpetuating the “cult of usefulness.” No longer. I guess that’s one good thing that has come from my health issues.

  19. ZD Eve on September 11, 2009 at 11:11 pm

    Kylie, thanks for countenancing my flippancy.

    On a more serious note, your post reminded me of this Milton sonnet.
    The last line in particular stays and stays with me.

  20. barndoor benji on September 12, 2009 at 3:05 am

    Daniel, that was hilarious! I thought my 13-year-old was a drama queen.

  21. Kylie on September 12, 2009 at 8:30 am

    Thank you so much, ZD Eve. I don’t know how I’ve missed that one before. Or perhaps I read it and wasn’t at a time in my life to make it meaningful. It’s now printed and posted on my mirror.

  22. Raymond Takashi Swenson on September 14, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    Daniel (#17)–From my perspective of 40 years since leaving on my mission, the emphasis on measurement for its own sake has diminished substantially. The unification of church finances has seriously diminished a lot of the constant focus on comparative statistics. There are real professionals in social science who gather information in a way that can be “useful” to the Brethren, but the one I know personally is also one of the most people-focused church leaders I have known since we were serving as missionaries together. The local branch, ward, district and stake leader meetings I have attended have been concerned with particular individuals and their needs and abilities, not statistics for their own sake. And the leadership training meetings I have attended, taught by visiting 70s and other senior Church leaders, have had the same focus. The same is true of the talks given in general conference and in stake conferences.

    Just yesterday, I attended a stake conference that was a satellite broadcast from Salt Lake to 61 stakes in Washington and Alaska, featuring talks by President Monson, Elder Russell M. Nelson, Paul Pieper of the Seventy and a counselor in the Young Mens presidency. None of the talks was statistical.

    The Young Mens counselor drew on his childhood experience being lost in an abandoned mine tunnel to teach about aiming toward the light of God. Elder Pieper talked about how a newly baptized sister in Kazakhstan had taught him a lesson in greater appreciaton for the importance of renewing our baptismal covenants through the sacrament. Elder Nelson focused on Primary age children and brought in ten of his grandchildren to sing a Primary song along with the children in the audience about following the prophet. Elder Monson’s talk was a call for us to search out those who are “lost”, either fallen into inactivity or who are on the periphery of the Church but haven’t come in, asking us to take a personal interest in each person we know and being optimistic about the change that men and women can make when they know that we truly love them.

    No one was taking roll at the meeting. My grandchildren and I left with messages about God’s loving guidance for us and our need to extend that love to others.

  23. Thomas the Tank Engine on September 17, 2009 at 11:51 pm

    We don’t talk much about being useful as a virtue much nowadays. But, if you have little children who like Thomas the Tank Engine you will find that being useful seems to be the most important virtue on the Island of Sodor. The stories were written by a pastor.

  24. Kylie on September 18, 2009 at 10:52 am

    Thanks, Thomas. I’d forgotten that–though how I could after watching Thomas the Tank Engine upteen times is difficult to unerstand.