The Useless Tree: A Story About Letting Go of Approval Seeking

During this time of disruption, upheaval and change many of us are asking big questions about how we want to live our lives, thinking about what really matters and making changes.

One of the biggest themes I am noticing when I talk to people right now is that they are tired from the pace of the life they were living, tired from the stress of their lifestyle and a bit disillusioned with it. I hear you, I’m feeling it too. The world was moving so fast.

So why were we moving so fast? And how did we get so stressed? And what do we do now?

Well there’s an old parable that can offer us some wisdom and reflection on this. It’s a parable about a tree. A useless tree. 

A carpenter and his apprentice were walking together through a large forest. And when they came across a tall, huge, gnarled, old, beautiful oak tree, the carpenter asked his apprentice: “Do you know why this tree is so tall, so huge, so gnarled, so old and beautiful?” The apprentice looked at his master and said: “No…why?”

“Well,” the carpenter said, “because it is useless. If it had been useful it would have been cut long ago and made into something else. But a boat made from it would sink, a coffin would soon rot, a tool would split, a door would ooze sap, and a beam would have termites. It’s worthless timber and is of no use. That is why it has reached such a ripe old age.

And it’s exactly because it is useless that it could grow so tall, majestic and so beautiful and that you can sit in its shade and relax on a hot day. No one seems to know how useful it is to be useless like this beautiful tree.”

He went on to say “What is it to be useless? It is to be free of striving to become something, to be someone special or to prove yourself. To be useless is simply to relax as you are, to rest at ease, to abide in your true nature in an easy way.

When there is nothing to do, nothing to be, and nothing to attain; When we truly let go of any need to be a certain way, leaving everything alone, then we are truly free, like the tree.”

I love this parable. It’s an important reminder of how often our sense of self-worth is hitched to being ‘useful’ to someone else. We’re often evaluating how useful we are to a company, to our partner, to our community, to our friends, to our family, to the world.

There can be a sense that our worth is only in our doing. And a background fear that our being isn’t enough.

We might all benefit from taking some time to ask ourselves what exactly it is that we’re working so hard to be ‘useful’ for, and why, and for whose benefit.

What do we hope to gain by all of our efficiency and productivity, and for whose approval or praise? Are we keeping so busy because we think that’s what is actually needed or are we just filling up our moments with a frenzy of activity aimed at ‘being someone’ in the eyes of the world? 

The reality is that every single person is valuable and worthy as they are, and each one of us makes a difference to the world surrounding us. No one is useless, even if they are seen that way by some people around them.

So remember, it doesn’t matter how others label you, or what they think of you or want from you. Your worth does not depend on your doing. You are whole and worthy in every fibre of your being.

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