I’ve been puzzling lately over our tendency to believe ourselves “indispensable” at our jobs, in our families, in our various projects and hobbies. We like to think that without us, the world just can’t go on. We take on an air of self-sacrifice, of bossing others, of over-control, and of generally feeling unappreciated for all the work we do.
“But I want to be useful!” we cry.
What if you were inventing the whole thing? What if I told you that without you, your kids would still be fed, your company would still grow, and your house would still stand?
There’s a funny story of a man who boards a train, then keeps his suitcase on his shoulder. When someone asks him why he doesn’t put it on the floor, he responds, “I don’t want to bother the train.”
I’ve always felt the story illustrates our inability to trust God, but now I can also see how it also demonstrates some goofy tendency we have of thinking that the train depends on us to help it along.
The Japanese architect Tadao Ando creates pillars that aren’t attached to the ceiling. They appear to be functional, but on closer inspection you see that they come up a little short. We are like those pillars, insisting that we are needed here, certain the whole building would collapse without us.
But who are we trying to convince?
It’s like we were this great, expansive consciousness taking part in a dream, and even though someone comes to wake us up, we insist that they let us sleep a little more. “They need me in the dream!” we respond.
So… what happens when we start to pull away? When we start to lessen our need to control things? We see that they work out anyway, and maybe even better than before.
That’s because we’re not stressing everyone with our need to feel needed at all times. Our doubt about whether we are needed or not is what is really making everyone around us crazy.
Tolstoy shows the way
The most beautiful expression of this conceit can be found in the short story What Men Live By by Leo Tolstoy. If you can read it without goosebumps and tears, you’d be the first!
(This story, and many others by this great writer, can be found free if charge on the internet, in hundreds of languages. Tolstoy didn’t copyright his late works, wanting to gift them to the world.)