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The Gift of Uselessness

By Published On: February 12, 20200 Comments on The Gift of Uselessness


My job description ought to read as follows: “Listening students into life.” 

It is by far the most important thing I do in my role as Senior Associate Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life at the University of Southern California.  Our office is the one place on the campus where a student can walk in the door and, on the spot, have a non-transactional encounter.  You come to the front door, you walk in, you say you want to talk with somebody, and – assuming I’m not talking with somebody else – the front desk staff will usher you directly through my door.  I welcome you, urge you to sit and relax, offer you a cup of tea, and I ask you, “How is your soul?”  You can answer it any way you want, and I’ll listen.  If you answer with silence, I’ll listen to your silence.  And if your answer takes the form of tears, I have a steady supply of kleenex on hand.

I have no agenda for you other than listening, and letting you know that I am listening, and responding as helpful as I can be should you have any questions or concerns.  I can’t help you get ahead on campus.  I don’t issue grades.  I don’t have any money for you.  I am not a therapist.  If you have a problem, I probably can’t fix it.

I’m useless to the students who visit me.

Which is why they keep coming through my door, one after another after another.

So many of their relationships on campus – and in the rest of the world – are driven by agendas.  The students who visit me tell me this story all the time:  they will meet a fellow student and think they have found a friend.  And then they will discover that this person is spending time with them in order to get ahead:  a contact they can use to get into a frat or a sorority or a club, or a connection to somebody else they really want to connect with for some other purpose.  Students often think they’ve made a friend, but discover that they are just being stepped on like a rung on a ladder.  Loneliness has been a real problem on campuses for a long time, but now it is exacerbated by the prevalence of these shallow, utilitarian relationships.  Social media on hand-held devices makes it worse.  Students ask:  am I a real friend to this person, or am I but another contact on their Instagram account, where they cleverly curate their image to advance their social standing?

Students – and everyone else – are thirsty for non-transactional connections.  They crave real friendships that are grounded in unconditional agape love.  What we offer here at the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life is useless.  It is pointless.  But for our students, it is like finding a spring of cool, clear water in a barren desert.

They may have problems, but from me, they don’t need solutions.  They usually don’t need advice.  They just need somebody to listen: to sit and pay attention to them, in their wholeness and fullness, in “as-is condition”, right then and there.  There is no more precious a gift I can offer them than this kind of uselessness.  The practice of Christianity is just this: to be fully present to another being, open to them in heart, soul, and mind… with no agenda.


Follow me on twitter: @jtburkloSee the GUIDE to my articles and books

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