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Tale of the Useless Old Tree


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Intelligence Officer

Intelligence Officer

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There’s an old Chinese story – from the writings attributed to the Taoist sage Chuang Tzu – about a master carpenter who was traveling with his apprentice through the countryside when the two happened upon a rather remarkable tree.

Here’s a version of the story, from Burton Watson’s translation of the text:

Carpenter Shih went to Ch’i and, when he got to Crooked Shaft, he saw a serrate oak standing by the village shrine. It was broad enough to shelter several thousand oxen and measured a hundred spans around, towering above the hills. The lowest branches were eighty feet from the ground, and a dozen or so of them could have been made into boats. There were so many sightseers that the place looked like a fair, but the carpenter didn’t even glance around and went on his way without stopping. His apprentice stood staring for a long time and then ran after Carpenter Shih and said, “Since I first took up my ax and followed you, Master, I have never seen timber as beautiful as this. But you don’t even bother to look, and go right on without stopping. Why is that?”

“Forget it – say no more!” said the carpenter. “It’s a worthless tree! Make boats out of it and they’d sink; make coffins and they’d rot in no time; make vessels and they’d break at once. Use it for doors and it would sweat sap like pine; use it for posts and the worms would eat them up. It’s not a timber tree – there’s nothing it can be used for. That’s how it got to be that old!”

Later, after the master carpenter had returned home, the old tree itself appeared to him in a dream to give him a bit of a talking-to.

“What are you comparing me with? Are you comparing me with those useful trees? The cherry apple, the pear, the orange, the citron, the rest of those fructiferous trees and shrubs – as soon as their fruit is ripe, they are torn apart and subjected to abuse. Their big limbs are broken off, their little limbs are yanked around. Their utility makes life miserable for them, and so they don’t get to finish out the years Heaven gave them, but are cut off in mid-journey. They bring it on themselves – the pulling and tearing of the common mob. And it’s the same way with all other things.

“As for me, I’ve been trying a long time to be of no use, and though I almost died, I’ve finally got it. This is of great use to me. If I had been of some use, would I ever have grown this large? Moreover you and I are both of us things. What’s the point of this – things condemning things? You, a worthless man about to die – how do you know I’m a worthless tree?”

I’m not here to define usefulness or uselessness for you – how could I? – or to encourage anybody to be of no use. But we might all benefit from taking some time, every now and then, to ask ourselves what exactly it is that we’re working so hard to be useful for, and why, and for whose benefit. What do we hope to gain by all our utility, our efficiency, and our productivity, and for whose ends are we ultimately toiling? Is it satisfaction we’re looking for, or recognition? Are we searching for security, or rewards of some kind, be they physical or metaphysical, earthly or otherwise?

@ADM S Osman @ADM D Kilkin thoughts? 🎙️

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