illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
Big or 'universal' problems, limited possibilities to bring a solution, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and 'useless' in the world… and easy to then fall into lethargy, disengagement, resignation.
The four great bodhisattva vows can lead to similar perceptions, e.g. « how can I save 'innumerable' beings when I don't even know how to save myself? »
But uselessness is good, if it is understood!
It means you dropped the illusion that you can control the world, that the world will conform to your desires if only you can just finish this, or do that, or acquire this…
Uselessness allows for an unbiased response to whatever arises, without the biases introduced by a pre-conceived agenda ('use').
Uselessness allows freedom, which is the opposite of inaction and the opposite of disengagement: don't equate uselessness with laissez-faire!
Art is “useless”… Philosophy, basic science, bring joy to others are 'useless'… Unconditional love is “useless”… Freedom is “useless” (so much so that philosophically destroying the naïve version of "free will" —by describing us as mere brains processing inputs— doesn't seem to affect much at first…).
Freedom is profoundly different from everything else we do in our lives though, scheming, rushing, reaching out, avoiding… basically being controlled by our goals (often given to us by peer pressure rather than freely chosen… and sometimes freely chosen but outdated anyway —we wouldn't repeat the choice if it was not for the bias of the "sunk cost", so this is no longer a free choice, it is just habit / karma / clinging)!
Our whole lives are ordinarily organised around one purpose or another, at each moment. Everything we do has a purpose, whether it’s to earn money, have a good time, or avoid pain… Everything we do can thus be judged on some scale of accomplishment, which is all nice and good but forgetting that the creative journey, the constructive engagement with the world, cannot be so easily measured with pre-defined scales: new trails require new scales, and referring only to pre-existing measures of success will lock you down and will only make you go round in the circles of the already-known!
Everything you do while being fully 'present' to it is 'useless'; it has no point outside of itself, outside of this moment, outside of here&now.
Which doesn't mean you're doing nothing or having no impact… it only means that you don't let a 'global' or 'universal' agenda blind you from the nitty-gritty of real inter-dependent people around you, needing some real practical help perfectly in reach within small, available means!
Saving all beings, but one at a time! Don't wait for a plan to be finalised before you act, don't wait for your 'use' to be known before you act, just respond the most appropriately you can! Here&now, useless and responsive! When you tap into freedom or into potentials for love, compassion, empathy, equanimity, you're not a robot… so you shouldn't expect to come with a 'use'r manual!
Mastering all dharma gates, but one at a time!
Ceasing all defilements, but one at a time!
Going the distance, but step by step and without clinging to a particular goal (not even Liberation): a step appropriate to the situation at hand is sometimes a 'backward' step on a pre-conceived measure! Such an assessment, conditioned / biased by a goal, by a use, might totally miss the appropriateness of a given response.
Don't lust after Liberation but don't stop the effort either! Nirvāṇa is attained with a different relationship to existence, here&now, it is not somewhere else, sometime else. There's nowhere to go, no 'use'; nirvāṇa is still different from saṃsāra though. Understand uselessness; then be useless, but neither disengaged nor blind / biased / ignorant.