One of the things people fear most is being “unneeded” or “useless.” When people feel like they’re superfluous, and that no one really needs them around, they tend to wonder about two things:
- “How will I get by?”
- “What am I even living for?”
The question of “How will I get by?” comes from a basic survival fear. If someone is made redundant at their job, and no one else is interested in hiring them, how will they keep a roof over their head and afford food, clothes, and health care? If their family doesn’t seem to need or want them, where will they go? When you’re on the fringes of the pack or out in the cold, it’s much harder to get by.
The question of “What am I even living for?” comes from a loss of purpose. When people feel superfluous, they wonder what it is they’re meant to do. People generally fare better when they’re needed for something or doing something meaningful – when they can create or build things, provide care, render assistance, inspire or teach others, give themselves and others opportunities to grow, explore something interesting, and give love to others in tangible ways.
Why Do Many People Feel Superfluous Nowadays?
The pandemic has exacerbated certain tendencies and accelerated trends that have already been provoking a sense of superfluousness in people, namely:
- Job loss or job insecurity
- A feeling of helplessness
Numerous small businesses have been wrecked this past year, but even before that many were contending with steep competition from internet commerce, along with struggling to pay rising taxes and rent in many places.
Many jobs continue to be in danger from automation, where technology (automated computer processes, AI) performs the necessary tasks and makes human involvement largely obsolete. The pandemic has brought on another wave of automation. For some, job retraining and new placements will be possible. However, there are various barriers to retraining and starting fresh, including the fact that individuals aren’t infinitely adaptable or transplantable. Retraining programs often fall short in various ways as well.
As for isolation, this is more than just being on your own now and then. It’s being cut off from others – family, friends, romantic partners, colleagues, community. The sense of being cut off can stem from literal physical isolation. (For most people, simulations of togetherness via Zoom and other online platforms don’t come close to replacing time spent together in-person.) Isolation may also stem from a feeling of profound loneliness even when you’re among other people. In either case, there’s some lack of mutual connectedness.
Another aspect of isolation is the belief that no one really cares about you. You experience callousness, empty promises, and an abdication of responsibility. This is crushing.
What about helplessness? Sometimes, people have a tendency to overestimate how helpless they are in various situations and miss out on ways to change their lives. But there’s no denying that helplessness goes beyond self-imposed mental limits. People may realize that they have much less influence over their surroundings than they thought. For instance, that their government on multiple levels isn’t responsive to them. One of the issues harshly brought to light by the pandemic is the disconnect between the governing elite and the people they govern, as seen with the insensible policies and the remarkable indifference to serious concerns.
What Can Come from Feeling superfluous?
When people feel like there’s no place for them, or nothing they do that matters, their reactions are often anguished. They may feel fear, rage, despair, or a pervasive sadness. Even if they’re currently doing fine, they may intensely fear slipping into superfluousness. In any case, these underlying feelings manifest in a variety of ways, and these ways are interrelated:
- Mental illness. This includes anxiety, depression, and self-harm.
- Numbing and apathy.
- Rage, which of course can manifest in different ways, productively or destructively.
- Frequent escapism. There’s no shortage of ways to escape nowadays, for hours on end, ranging from T.V. to computer games to getting immersed in other people’s internet dramas. Pervasive daydreaming serves well too. (I don’t think of escapism as an unqualified negative, by the way. It depends on how escapism influences your life and character. Does it leave you mostly passive, numb, feeling stagnant, avoidant of things you need to do, unwilling to think much about others or think much of yourself?)
- Childishness. If adulthood seems like a barren, forsaken place, childhood can seem like a retreat. I’m not talking about having fun or being silly sometimes, but a fuller immersion in childish activities, thoughts, and emotional states.
- The easy answers of different ideologies. When you’re lost, afraid, and angry, simple answers become more appealing. Simple prescriptions for what to do and who to attack in order to “fix things.” You don’t have to think about the consequences of what you’re doing; everything’s going to be fine if you fall in line.
- Increased cutthroat behavior. If the number of jobs is shrinking in a particular field, people will war over them more aggressively. Social media is one avenue through which to render your competitors unemployable. Especially by stirring up outrage against them over what are often unexceptionable posts, or comments that may be a bit tone deaf or offensive but don’t really warrant an exaggerated performance of fear and rage.
- A desperate need to stand out. There’s a widespread fear of being invisible and unneeded. There’s a greater pressure to appear special, exceptional in some way that will appeal to your professional and social circles or really to anyone who may wind up giving you attention, admiration, or money (people’s livelihoods may depend on the attention). There are different responses to this pressure and fear. Sometimes, the response will involve slapping all kinds of fashionable labels on yourself, as if you’re a car covered in bumper stickers, the most unique car on the clogged road. You may feel as if you always need to market yourself, to everyone, especially in a climate of job uncertainty, more frequent job switches, and side hustles.
What can People do if They’re Feeling Superfluous?
This won’t be a comprehensive set of answers, but part of the thinking-out-loud exercise this blog post is meant to be:
I’m going to start with the most basic one. If someone doesn’t have money, doesn’t have a home, or is struggling with an illness, oppressive or abusive circumstances, or profound isolation, what’s the next step forward? And the one after that? Figuring that out is critical.
For what it’s worth, I don’t believe that anyone is superfluous. That includes people who are are so stricken with age or illness that they can no longer do (or think) much.
Rethinking Values and Beliefs
What is the worth of a human being? There’s a pervasive belief that if someone isn’t making much money, for example, then they’re not worth much. Many feel contempt for people who are elderly, chronically ill, disabled, mentally ill, or struggling with long-term unemployment or underemployment. Many feel contempt for poor people as a group – not towards an individual based on their character, but towards a group based on a blanket assumption that poverty makes someone inherently less valuable in every respect.
Unfortunately, this attitude may pervade even religious communities, where you’d think that the sacredness of each person, regardless of money or social status, would be more consistently recognized.
The question is, what do you think? How do you value people? You can’t change everyone’s mind, but you have some measure of control over your own mind (though yes, social pressure is difficult to resist). Do you need to accept other people’s criteria for human worth?
Reflecting and changing how you think about a worthwhile life can help address feelings of superfluousness. Consider the measures by which you’re supposedly superfluous, and the measures by which you’re worthy of dignity, your life meaningful.
Finding Meaningful Things to Do
Especially with the pervasiveness of the internet and social media, there’s a tendency to think that nothing is really worth doing unless it attracts a significant amount of attention, acclaim, and money. Why bother if at most you only have a small audience, or if you’re mostly on your own?
This is a difficult belief to wrestle with. And I don’t have a problem with people sharing their interests or skills online. It can be done beautifully, it can be a great way of inspiring, teaching, and cheering up other people, and sometimes it can help people make a living. But what happens when the craving for attention or approval becomes too powerful, even more than the enjoyment of the activity itself or the meaning in it?
It’s behind a paywall now, but a while ago I came across an article about nursing home residents whose lives improved when they began to take care of animals (and I think plants too). Just the act of looking after, nurturing, and taking enjoyment in other living creatures lifted them up.
Many of the things that make life meaningful are not obviously “earth-shattering” things. They’re small and everyday, but they’re still important to each individual. As I mentioned earlier in the post, people generally fare better (spiritually, mentally, and in overall health) when their lives contain meaningful activities. When they explore interests, learn, and teach. When they bond with other people (and with living creatures generally). When they can make things. When they can give love and appreciate the love given to them. When they can help others and themselves, such as by volunteering or through political participation, including pushing for certain laws or policies to change (or arguing against certain rash and potentially harmful changes).
What specifically can you do, right now? Maybe the opportunities aren’t all that obvious now, especially with the isolation and loss of this past year. Maybe it will take some time to figure out. Don’t give up trying to figure it out.
Striving to Be a Person You Can Respect
The concept of self-love is one that doesn’t sit easily with me, especially the way it gets presented in pop culture. I can’t, without laughing, think of myself as a “goddess” or a “superstar” or whatever else I’m supposed to call myself.
Instead, what’s harder but worth working on, is becoming a person I can respect.
In many cases, your greatest victories won’t involve public approval. They’ll involve beating back or containing a corrosive habit. Making improvements (often incremental improvements, with setbacks) to your character. Curbing the impulse to act with pettiness or cruelty. Becoming more mature in different ways, often subtly and gradually.
And they can also involve making progress on something you’re learning to do. Improving competence and striving for mastery. Working on deepening your understanding of something important. Resisting the urge to merely navel gaze or pick at old scabs. Directing your thoughts towards what you can do and whether you’re being wise. And then acting in ways that you can respect.
Sounds simple, right? Right. As if. In multiple ways, it’s easy to feel lost, disconnected, and unneeded. I also think it’s unrealistic to expect that any combination of beliefs and actions will completely drive away the sense of being superfluous or the possibility of ever feeling that way again. It’s a lurking belief that’s especially prone to creeping in when you’re down. What I describe here is more like ways of putting it in a corner, kicking it out into the yard instead of allowing it to invade and run rampant through your headspace. Also, they’re ways of giving yourself a deeper, more stable, and more nourishing headspace.