If you’ve spent any time in the company of male children, you have surely been introduced to Thomas the Tank Engine and James and Percy and Gordon and all the other locomotives on the Island of Sodor. You are also no doubt familiar with Sir Topham Hatt, railroad director and unapologetic member of the 1%, who wears a coat with tails and orders the trains around and occasionally booms, “Thomas, you’re a really useful engine!” On the island of Sodor, being “useful” is the absolute apex of praise, the consummation of all the engines’ hopes, a state devoutly to be wished.
Last Friday morning, as I was lifting my youngest child (who, incidentally, is the heavier of the two), I wrenched my back. It was painful, but livable. Then I sat down and worked on my laptop for an hour, and then I tried to stand up, and HOLY MOLY IT HURT. During that hour in the chair the sprain had hardened and set, rather like concrete, and I was unable to stand upright.
The next four days were all about ice packs, ibuprofin, having to skip the family reunion we were planning to attend in Santa Barbara (sniff), and needing Scott to help me perform even the most basic duties, like getting dressed. I literally had not been that hobbled (or that housebound) since my last C-section. It was awful.
But it was also a good opportunity for some self-awareness, and here’s what I realized: I have a deep-seated need to be a really useful person, and that desire can sometimes be at odds with, well, reality. There I was, in pain, lying on top of a massive pack of frozen blue gel, and I just kept thinking about how I wished I could fold laundry and make the bed and tidy the kitchen. Although I got to read and catch up on my DVDs — nice, in a way — it killed me not to feel useful. I actually felt guilty, as if I should be pushing through the pain and Doing Things instead of lying on the sofa and watching BBC costume dramas. Isn’t that sick? (Yes, it’s sick.)
Where does it come from, this pathological need to feel useful? Can I blame the insidious influence of the annoying Sir Topham Hatt? Or is it a female thing, a mom thing? When Scott is under the weather, he seems remarkably able to focus on getting well rather than have to expend energy feeling guilty about not doing enough around the house. I want to be more like him.
Because — this will come as a shock, Thomas and friends — usefulness is not everything. In fact, there are obvious limits to using usefulness as a barometer of worth. If we judge people solely on a utilitarian basis, that seems awfully — well — sinister. Taken to an extreme, we become a world where certain groups, like young children and the disabled and the elderly, are seen as lacking or less-than. And if growing up Catholic has taught me anything, it has taught me that every human life has dignity, no matter what that person can or can’t do to be “useful.”
I guess that includes me, too, even when I’m flat on my back and the laundry is towering over me and the bed is unmade and I’m on Episode 4 of Wives and Daughters.
Maybe I’ll come out of this sprained back with a more flexible way of thinking.