Embracing the creative possibilities of exhaustion

A "useless" tree in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden
READING: “The Useless Tree” in Thomas Merton’s “The Way of Chuang Tzu”

Hui Tzu said to Chuang: 
I have a big tree, 
the kind they call a “stinktree”. 
The trunk is so distorted, 
so full of knots, 
no one can get a straight plank 
Out of it. The branches are so crooked 
You cannot cut them up 
In any way that makes sense. 

There it stands beside the road. 
No carpenter will even look at it. 

Such is your teaching — 
Big and useless. 

Chuang Tzu replied: 
Have you ever watched the wildcat 
Crouching, watching his prey —  
This way it leaps, and that way, 
High and low, and at last 
Lands in the trap. 

But have you seen the yak? 
Great as a thundercloud he stands in his might. 
Big? Sure,  
He can’t catch mice! 

So for your big tree, no use? 
Then plant it in the wasteland 
In emptiness. Walk idly around, 
Rest under it’s shadow. 
No axe or bill prepares its end. 
No one will ever cut it down. 

Useless? You should worry!”


It seems that a very common complaint presented to GPs by their patients is the feeling of extreme tiredness and exhaustion. It even has a name TATT — an acronym for "tired all the time". I’m sure none of us has been, or is, immune from this syndrome — myself included, of course.

A number of things suggest that what is true of so many of us as individuals seems also to true about our general culture. But we have a deep problem talking about it because, as Franco Berardi notes:

“The notion of exhaustion has always been anathema to the discourse of modernity, of romantic Sturm und Drang, of the Faustian drive to immortality, the endless thirst for economic growth and profit, the denial of organic limits” (e-flux).

This discourse has brought with it many problems, not least of because it has generally played itself out in the “romantic cult of youth” which has helped create for us a culture which devalues old people, and particularly old women, for their apparent weaknesses and uselessness.

This thought is always very much in my mind whenever we hold events like our Fourth Wednesday Lunch Clubs which, in a gentle but radical way, attempts to push against this view. Also, as I’m sure you realise, as a minister of religion I’m constantly engaged pastorally in some aspect or other connected with both ageing and feelings of tiredness and exhaustion. Today, I want to try and bring out a positive message about these things that I think is pertinent not only to us as individuals but also one which says something of profound political and social importance to our own age.

Now, I’m soon to hit fifty and, whilst I realise that this is not old in so many ways, one thing we can all agree on is that it isn’t to be young any more. I realise, especially in my parallel career as a jazz musician which still involves lots of travel and late nights, that I simply haven’t got the energy I had only five years ago. Were my weak flesh willing the strong musical spirit that is still within me would snap up every gig going but these days I find myself letting some of them go, and good ones too. This serves to make me very aware, at both a physical and existential level, that I’m growing old and that I need to pay careful, creative attention to this, both for my own benefit and also in my role as your minister.

I consider myself lucky that very early on in my life — at school via the poet A. E. Housman — I came across the philosophy of the third-century Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 BC). It was through him and his first century Roman follower, the poet Lucretius (c. 99 – c. 55 BC), that I was gently inducted into a religious naturalist philosophy of life that never bought into the cult of youth. Here are just two examples of Epicurus' general view:

We should not view the young man as happy, but rather the old man whose life has been fortunate. The young man at the height of his powers is often befuddled by chance and driven from his course; but the old man has dropped anchor in old age as in a harbour, since he secures in sure and thankful memory goods for which he was once scarcely confident of (Vatican Sayings No. 17).

No one should postpone the study of philosophy when they are young, nor should they weary of it when they become mature, because the search for mental health is never untimely or out of season. To say that the time to study philosophy has not yet arrived or that it is past is like saying the time for happiness is not yet at hand or is no longer present. This both the young and the mature should pursue philosophy, the latter in order to be rejuvenated as they age by the blessings that accrue from pleasurable past experience, and the youthful in order to become mature immediately through having no fear of the future. Hence we should make a practice of the things that make for happiness, for assuredly when we have this we have everything, and we do everything we can to get it when we don’t have it (Opening paragraph of his letter to Menoeceus).

But early Christianity did such a good job of actively suppressing Epicurean philosophy that it was not until Lucretius’ poem, the De Rerum Natura, was rediscovered in 1417 in a monastery in Germany by Poggio Bracciolini that it began, oh so slowly, to find its way back into our culture’s thinking.

The importance of this philosophy has, as you know, grown significantly in importance for me over the years I have been your minister and, all in all, I’m pleased to see signs that this philosophy is continuing to make its way back into the popular imagination. A particularly enjoyable example of this can be found in Daniel Klein’s recent short and accessible book for Penguin Press called “Travels with Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life”. Here's an extract from the publisher's blurb:

In his early 70s, author Daniel Klein saw his peers taking up jogging, studying new languages and wearing hormone patches to charge their libidos. Klein already harboured a few misgivings about the frantic striving of the “new old age” when a trip to the dentist prompted an epiphany. Klein recalled that the dentist said ’I had to get these implants over the course of a year [or] I would look older with denture plates . . . and my teeth would pop out once in a while. And I thought, what do I care if have a goofy old man smile? I am an old man!’ Klein returned to the Greek village and philosophers he has visited for decades to discover authentic ways of ageing. In his funny and wry account. . . he concludes that old age is a privilege to be savoured, rather than a disease to be cured or a condition to be denied.

Now, all this is, I think, highly relevant to us for a number of reasons.

The first is that, although our own local congregation’s average age has dropped significantly over the past ten years, the truth is that we live in an ageing society and our age profile, indeed the age profile of every organisation in Europe is, overall, going to continue to rise, not to drop. The consequence of this is something we, as a culture, haven’t properly begun to think about although we are now slowly being forced to do so.

Initially, this not a pleasant or easy thing to do because in the first instance it tends to produce in our culture what Berardi calls “a generalized form of dementia senilis: fear of the unknown, xenophobia, loss of historical memory” (e-flux).

Now why he points to fear of the unknown is reasonably obvious but why mention xenophobia, loss of historical memory?

Well, one of the common ways energy has been restored to a society that feels exhausted is via the myth of national renewal which has often been associated with an excessive (and sometimes frankly embarrassing) over-promotion and valuing of youthful strength and energy — just think, for example, of Vladimir Putin’s many attempts to present such a picture by, for example his macho topless pose atop a horse. Nationalism in many forms is very much on the rise across Europe and as we all know this has nearly always brought with it some of the most unpleasant forms of violent and oppressive politics. And Berardi mentions loss of memory because if our culture only values and privileges youth and youthful energy then there are in play no experienced voices which can to help put things into the widest possible perspective which can remind people of the great value, worth and wisdom that emerges into the world when you are forced to slow down, look carefully and consider patiently. But, as Berardi notes,

. . . in a different scenario — one that we should anticipate at the cultural level [which is what I’m seeking to do now] — the process of senilization may open the way to a cultural revolution based on the force of exhaustion, of facing the inevitable with grace, discovering the sensuous slowness of those who do not expect any more from life than wisdom — the wisdom of those who have seen a great deal without forgetting, who look at each thing as if for the first time (e-flux).

This is, in my opinion, a beautiful insight which meshes almost seamlessly with Epicurus’ basic teachings and with the things I am trying to encourage here through the practice of our Epicurean Gatherings, mindfulness meditation and a consideration of thinkers like Thoreau and Henry Bugbee and their practice of “patiency” and “gelasseheit” that I explored with you over Advent and Christmas. (Here's an interesting link to an Open Democracy piece on mindfulness and social activism and here is a link to a video a "School of Life" video about Thoreau).

It also connects with an idea I offered up last summer through a consideration of Boccachio's fourteenth-century humanist vision found in his Decameron. You will remember that he offers us a vision of the small voluntary community acting as a place where people can gather and slow down together with wit, decorum, story-telling, fellowship, conversation, courtesy, and sociability in order to offer ourselves and the world more creative, compassionate and civilising interpretations of the world than those we are currently being offered by reality.

This change of paradigm is surely necessary because we are slowly becoming increasingly aware that we cannot continue living the kind of excessive, profligate, consumerist life we currently do, one that is obsessed with youth, energy, endless accumulation, wealth and unlimited growth.

We know we need to change both our own lives our world and culture and, consequently, many of us feel even more pressured to become, or remain, activists in some way. But one of the odd, almost paradoxical things, about the activist tradition we have inherited is that our activism has, itself, been significantly shaped by two of same obsessions it seeks to challenge, namely youth and energy.

But, over and over again, both in my study and via email I often have conversations with traditional activists — both religious and political — who, as they get older, find themselves utterly burnt out after seemingly getting absolutely nowhere in their campaigns, or at least nowhere significant. The levels of exhaustion and depression are, in my experience, high and getting higher and this plays out in either some kind of “quiet desperation” (in my circles the most usual response) or, alas, even at times in violence and/or suicide. (Suicide is the biggest killer of men aged between 20 and 49).

This is, I realise, potentially a bleak piece of news to bring you — but that is no reason not to face up to it — in fact, unless we collectively face up to it we won’t have any proper and positive way to change the picture and find new, more sustainable, effective and joyous and satisfying ways of being “activists” (or whatever the new word must be) in an ageing culture in which we are all feeling increasingly exhausted by it all.

Berardi is of the opinion, and I'm coming to agree with him, that under these conditions we

 . . . should abandon the mode of activism, and adopt a passive mode. A radical passivity would dispel the ethos of relentless productivity that neoliberal politics has imposed. The mother of all the bubbles, the bubble of work, would finally deflate. We have been working too much over the past three or four centuries, and outrageously too much over the last thirty years. If a creative consciousness of exhaustion could arise, the current depression may mark the beginning of a massive abandonment of competition, consumerist drive, and dependence on work (e-flux).

I realise that this will strike many of you here as hopelessly idealistic, if not simply impossible. This will be especially true if you find yourself (as I know many of you do) in situations where doing more and more work is the only way to survive at the moment. This is felt even more powerfully if you find yourself doing the lowest paid jobs on a zero hour contract.

I am not denying this reality but the truth is each of us can begin to play a part in giving birth to “a creative consciousness of exhaustion that, to repeat Berardi’s words we heard earlier, might just help us face the inevitable with grace and discover the sensuous slowness of those who do not expect any more from life than wisdom — the wisdom of those who have seen a great deal without forgetting, and who look at each thing as if for the first time.

We know there needs to be a revolution in our culture’s way of being in the world and Berardi’s suggestion could be a very effective, new form of non-violent civil disobedience and “activism” that might help to bring this about. In connection with all this it’s worth remembering that, as Tolstoy once wrote “There can be only one permanent revolution — a moral one: the regeneration of the inner man. " He then asks, "How is this revolution to take place?" He replies:

"Nobody knows how it will take place in humanity, but every man feels it clearly in himself. And yet in our world everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself” (On Anarchy, 1900).

I think this is true, we do need to change ourselves first — and I include myself in this call to slow down and discover something of this sensuous slowness. Only a non-violent revolution like this will help bring to pass for everyone Daniel Klein's hope that old age (in ourselves and our culture) will come to be seen and felt as a privilege to be savoured rather than a disease to be cured or a condition to be denied.

So, to conclude, I’m being entirely serious when today I suggest to you that, as individuals and as a religious community, we might be able to do nothing better to help our world as new kinds of “activists” than becoming more and more like Chuang Tzu’s highly inactive, big, useless tree.