‘I can’t do anything. I can’t leave the house. I can’t keep my plans… I’m useless.’
‘I’m useless.’ Who hasn’t felt that way sometimes? Often our Loved Ones with chronic illness, who can’t always do what other people can, can feel this more obviously. They may not use the words ‘I’m useless’ but if you listen carefully to their frustrations and yearnings you may hear it all the same.
How can we respond when someone feels this way in the context of Chronic Illness?
This is the first post in the series Responding to Misconceptions in Chronic Illness. Each one will begin with a statement about chronic illness such as, ‘I’m all alone’ and follow with a ‘letter’ from a Watcher in response. So without further ado, let’s begin!
‘I’m useless’ (Chronic Illness Misconceptions)
Dear Loved One,
I struggle when you tell me you feel useless. Everything in me wants to wrap you in a hug and protest. ‘No, no you’re not useless!’ But while that may be true, your feeling is a real one and you deserve to have me take some time to think about it, rather than hoping my gut response will make everything okay.
So I looked up the word ‘useful’ online, and I found this: ‘being of use or service; serving some purpose; advantageous, helpful, or of good effect’. And my first thought was, I want to be useful! Who doesn’t? I think there’s something in us which cries out for purpose — we want to do something with our lives. And so I understand your feeling, I do. I hate it when I come down with a bad cold and I have the day off work and spend it wandering around the house feeling at odds with reality, because I have no purpose except to ‘get better’ and that doesn’t feel like enough. To spend more than a few days like this would be hard indeed. I’m sorry that has been your experience for so long.
You are valuable
This is perhaps going to seem obvious, either because you have heard it in the Bible or seen it on self-help encouragement posts online, but I’m going to say it anyway. You are valuable regardless of your usefulness. You deserve to be loved and cared for, regardless of your usefulness. You are called to love and care for yourself, regardless of your usefulness. I believe this because I believe that every human life is inherently precious. Not everyone believes this, and yet in the throes of illness and incapacity most resort to the hope given by this statement just the same. As a Christian I can both say you are valuable and give you the reason why: All people are created by God in his likeness and by his love. You do not have to be useful to be important.
You are useful
And yet you are useful. Why? Because the God of the universe is weaving the world towards its destiny and you are part of his plan. He’s a God who leaves nothing to chance, and works all people, events and situations for a purpose. Just as to be human is to be valued regardless of your usefulness, to be human is also to be inherently useful. For Christians with the Holy Spirit, to say they are not useful is to forget that God is working usefully within them. For those who don’t know God yet, they are nevertheless part of God’s plan for mankind. The One who created them won’t let their lives be ultimately useless because that’s not how he works. God is not wasteful.
Useful for what?
All of this begs the question: useful for what? I, personally, am useful if you want an article written, and significantly less useful if you want a map read. What do you feel useful for? At the very least, I know you are useful for reminding me that I am loved… otherwise you wouldn’t have trusted me enough to share your fears, and I wouldn’t be writing this letter. Thank you.
Maybe there’s a certain way you wish to be useful and you can’t serve in that capacity and it hurts. Maybe there’s certain ways all the people around you seem to be useful and you want to be like them, and that hurts too. I hate feeling useless when I just want to help. It’s a heavy feeling on your shoulders, a dark pool of aloneness in the pit of your stomach. I wish you didn’t carry this burden.
The most important use
Still, I can’t help but think of Anna in the temple. The Bible says she was 84 years old and had spent that time living in God’s house and worshiping him. Finally when Jesus was born she met God’s child and spoke about who He would become. And that’s it. I wonder how many times in the past 84 years her neighbours muttered about her wasting her life? Surely she should have been doing something useful? She could have been working and giving food to the poor, she could have been caring for other families or even sewing garments for orphans. And who knows, perhaps she was doing all of that, but the Bible only tells us what was important: she was worshiping God.
Usefulness is complicated
And it reminds me that sometimes being useful to God doesn’t look useful to others, or even to ourselves. Sometimes the decades pass and it’s difficult to pinpoint how exactly we were beneficial to others. And when that’s the case, I can’t help but think I’ve got my value system all wrong. Because Anna tells us that worshiping God is enough for a useful life. Obeying him is enough, whatever that looks like.
Who is to know how living with a chronic illness for forty years might be useful in the heavenly realms? Who is to know how it may cause the angels to stand still in shock and praise God because of this evidence of his Spirit working in you? Who is to know? One day we will, and you might turn out to be the most useful of us all, if you persevere in loving God come what may.
And so I pray that the usefulness God has planned for you will be enough. That it will satisfy you and bring you peace. And I thank God for the reminder he is giving me through you of what really matters, of what is really useful.
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