Zhuangzi and the Gnarly, Crooked Tree
In the Zhuangzi, a Taoist collection of writings, there’s the story of a gnarly, crooked, tree. The tree was so twisted and knot-ridden it was unusable. Loggers viewed it as useless. It would have been a waste of time to cut it down. Not one single straight board could be harvested from it.
Zhuangzi’s companion, Huizi, called the tree ‘big, useless, and spurned by anyone who saw it.’ But Zhuangzi noted people could relax beside it, or take a nap under it. Huizi continues his diatribe against the tree, calling it too gnarled and twisted to measure or apply a square to.
And Zhuangzi points out an axe will never shorten the tree’s life. Zhaungzi further noted all the straight trees had been cut down because they were useful.
In time, the tree’s strange looks and age made it special. People even began to worship it. Its uselessness was the very reason for its survival.
The lesson here is that being useful isn’t necessarily good for you. Sometimes being useless is the key to survival, or even the path to true freedom. Taoists reject the idea of measuring things, to include ourselves, by how useful they are.