Recently, I stumbled across the story of The Useless Tree, an excerpt from The Zhuangzi, on one the founding texts of Taoism. Roughly paraphrased, the story goes like this:
Carpenter Shih and his apprentice make their way through a village and pass a large, old tree. Captain Shih takes no notice, but his apprentice remarks:
"Since I first took up my ax and followed you, Master, I have never seen timber as beautiful as this. But you don't even bother to look, and go right on without stopping. Why is that?"
"Forget it - say no more!" he responded. "It's a worthless tree! It's not a timber tree - there's nothing it can be used for. That's how it got to be that old!"
There's quite a bit more detail than that, including a dream sequence, but that's the main posit of this story. It's an exploration of the ways in which 'uselessness' can actually be 'useful', by way of limiting the ability of others to exploit you for their own purposes. Compared to other passages from The Zhuangzi, it's nowhere near as widespread, at least not outside of the circles of the religion itself. But in the few pages I saw discussing it, there was a frequent interpretation of the parable being about “ending approval seeking”, “taking a step back”, and other such individualist ideas. Obviously, what immediately came to mind for me was the connection that this story had in context of Capitalism and Disability.
You know, actually, what's up with that dream sequence?
The Useless Tree converses with Carpenter Shih in a vision.
"What are you comparing me with? Are you comparing me with those useful trees? The cherry apple, the pear, the orange, the citron, the rest of those fructiferous trees and shrubs - as soon as their fruit is ripe, they are torn apart and subjected to abuse. Their big limbs are broken off, their little limbs are yanked around. Their utility makes life miserable for them."
In this allegorical world of trees and humans and apples, we have a biting assessment of how the ruling class does not care about workers at all beyond their ability to produce. The story, surprising me, is not simply saying "just chill out, dude, it's great, be one with nature". What it's doing is asking the question: Why should we be proud to produce if our products go to other people — people who do not care about us at all?
It's fascinating, to see this story so boldly claim that there is no inherent moral weight to productivity alone — something I obviously believe in. I'd be interested in how it related to the zeitgeist it was created in, but I don't know too much about that.
The tree continues:
"They bring it on themselves...As for me, I've been trying a long time to be of no use, and though I almost died, I've finally got it. This is of great use to me."
The framing, here, clearly demonstrates an idea that “usefulness” is a choice. At once, this story does seem to be a kind of message calling for an expression of your truest self — unaltered by goals of productivity — but it also asserts that making a concerted effort to be useless is the most noble. While this is a novel idea, at least, it trips over its own metaphorical feet.
For how can a tree choose where it is planted? Its kind of bark? The integrity of its branches? Its aesthetic appeal? How can it ever truly be to blame?
Ultimately, either way, the responsibility is placed on the trees, for inadvertently falling under a certain category, instead of on the humans who exploit, commodify, and in turn, create that very dichotomy.
"Make boats out of it and they’d sink; make coffins and they’d rot in no time; make vessels and they’d break at once."
When disability activists talk about how a focus on “labour” and “workers rights” in anticapitalist spaces often excludes those who are barred entry to the workforce, a common response is ‘’well, there's many different types of labour, in and out of the workplace!” “Don't worry," they say, "we accept disabled people in our commune! If you can tell us exactly how you'll contribute!” Yet chronic pain, fatigue, memory issues, processing issues, and countless other symptoms can make it difficult to do any labour — of any kind — at all.
There's another aspect this ancient fable fails to capture; in our modern day, you must work in order to live. When your basic survival needs — food, water, shelter — require you to have money, and money requires you to work — there is no option, here. Sell yourself or die. In essence, the uselessness of a tree might save it’s life, but the uselessness of a worker is their very death sentence. Which is to say, when talking about capitalism and disability, an important aspect to understand is that just as the labour power of workers becomes the cause of their exploitation, the lack of labour power of the disabled becomes the cause for theirs. That, really, is the specific idea that came to mind when I first read The Useless Tree.
"What's the point of this - things condemning things? You, a worthless man about to die-how do you know I'm a worthless tree?"
And yet, something about the tale still speaks to me. It feels fantastical. To be old, but valued. Gnarled, but beautiful. The idea that living a useless, unproductive life is actually a heightened state of being is, for better or worse, comforting, especially to a person like me. But to rebel, in that way, to be proudly unproductive, is it— well, productive? Even subversively, isn't it simply another way to engage in the moralising of productivity?
Disabled people speak often about how being portrayed as ‘brave’, ‘enlightened’ souls, is not actually a revolutionary practice, but rather extended mythologising, other-ing. As I find similarly in being transexual, there is an obsessive fascination with bodies and experiences that are not the norm. And yet, it is our norm — every day of our lives. If we are not to be objects of exploitation in the usual sense, we are to be objects of spectacle.
This even extends to the fiction of the fable, where the tree arrives in a near divine fashion to provide a lesson to the carpenter. No matter what The Useless Tree might have you believe, The Uselessness of the Tree is not for the purposes of its own self-actualisation. No, it exists for the humans of the fiction — for you — to marvel at its wisdom. Of course, its just a story.
And, of course, many disabled people do find meaning in their disability, spiritually or otherwise. There are many unique perspectives of the world from within the community, and a necessary examination of how we value human life. I know that it has taught me how to be self-reliant, but also have no shame in needing help or assistance. I know that it has given me a great gift of crafting meaning for myself in the absence of fitting into pre-packaged expectations. But, in any case, it wasn't choosing to be useless — rather, it was the nonconsensual imposition of that label on to me — that has proved teachable.
"If I had been of some use, would I ever have grown this large?"
One message to take from all this talk about trees, perhaps — you know, to craft a metaphor of my own — is that we all need a strong root system. We all need connection to the ground underneath us and the world around us.
We cannot choose the kind of tree we are, but if we bear fruit, we share.
Your neighbourhood good-for-nothing,
P.P.S I think I use the terms fable/parable/story/teaching/etc. all interchangeably here. I dunno if that is wrong, for I am a dummy.