"Here. Make Yourself Useful."

Kara Swanson, Brain Injury Blog
“Here. Make Yourself Useful”

Today was my Mom’s birthday. She would have been 82. August 27th…

Always on these anniversaries, thoughts float by like leaves on the top of  an ever-moving river. I am always reminded of how much time continues to pass, even when we cannot account for it. 

Today I heard her voice many times. When I was a kid, I would come home and she would be there cleaning the windows or something. She’d toss me a rag and say, “Here.  Make yourself useful.” Seemed anytime I was just standing there or sitting there, doing nothing, she would put me to good use. Toss me a rag, hand me a bag of groceries, a pile of corn needing to be shucked.  “Here….”

I was thinking about how many brain injury survivors write to me believing that they are no longer useful. Caught in neutral. Stuck. No longer moving. Seems we lose what we were able to do and, suddenly, we measure ourselves as having lost our worth, our usefulness, our good measure.

When I was thinking about my Mom’s words today, suddenly it occurred to me: 

I think we’ve been looking at things all wrong.

We’ve been looking at what we can no longer do and judging ourselves now worthless and useless. I think the secret is, instead, to look around us at the people who cannot do things any longer and then get busy.

I don’t know about you but people in my life are way busy. Rushing. Overworked. Overwhelmed. Oh, how they are busy. They have their multiple jobs and multiple kids and multiple obligations … No time, no time, no time …

They sure don’t need me to be a hotel catering manager. Funny how that works…

One of them works long days and so I do his laundry. One works long days and so I go check on and feed her cat. I watch dogs when people go on vacation or take people to eye appointments when they know they’ll be dilated. I’ll pick up and drop off lunch for someone too busy to leave work or take packages up to the post office for someone who can’t make it there before they close.

Because the people in my life all know I spend way too much time on the Internet, they’ll ask me to look something up for them, to check facts, figure out new meds they’re taking or do a little research on whatever because I have more time.

Because they all know I love to edit and write, they’ll have me check their resumes and business correspondence. I’ll write speeches for them and admissions letters. I’ve done proposals and eulogies and whatever people have trouble writing.

And more.

A friend of mine has very sore hands from arthritis so I’ll turn knobs and open jars. Another gets a sore neck and forearm from work so I’ll massage it. Another gets terrible sinus headaches so I’ll massage her head and neck as well. There’s a bugger of a sciatica on one that acts up and a knotted shoulder blade on another.

None of these have anything to do with the catering career I lost to my injury. But I’ll tell you that, while doing any of them, I feel a lot of things and none of them are useless. None of them are worthless or unimportant or no longer valid.

I’m helping and it feels fabulous.

When someone needs me to help relieve a horrible headache or back pain or get a letter edited that needs to be in the mail in the morning or a package that needs to get to the post office, they sure don’t care that I can no longer work a twenty hour day choreographing someone’s wedding.

And the best part is-neither do I.

There was one survivor who used to write to me and tell me that he’d spend all his days yelling at God and watching his wife carry on the family chores he used to do. He’d offer up commentary on how she would drag in the groceries and she’d often bring home lettuce when they already had lettuce. He said that she was overwhelmed doing so much and would often make mistakes. He was good at reporting how she failed in the jobs he used to do so well.

I asked him if he ever helped her make the grocery list, helped her do the shopping, maybe surprise her when she returned home to a clean house and a drawn bath. Did he ever do the laundry for her or rub her shoulders after her long day or make something for dinner or pour her a glass of wine…


My Mom was a tough bugger. I’ll never forget the time she accidentally dumped a huge pot of boiling water on her belly and never even told us. A few days later I happened to see her reach up to hang sheets on the line and her blouse blew open to reveal monstrous, angry burn blisters literally the size of water balloons.  She never said a word.  Never complained.

So, when someone like that tosses a rag your way and tells you, “Here. Make yourself useful,”  you get busy.

You didn’t want her asking twice.


What I’m thinking that, for all of us so stuck in neutral because of the things we can do no longer, maybe it’s time someone tosses us a rag. Maybe it’s time we stop looking at ourselves and consuming ourselves with just ourselves.

Time moves us forward. Propels us so. New things demand our time, our energies, our commitments.  We can’t carry them all. If we are going to participate in our lives and in the lives of others, then we have to set those old things down so we can take up the new ones. 

Nobody needs us falling back on the hike. We need to keep up. And, in order to keep up, we need to get up. To “make ourselves useful.” 

Time to grab a rag and get busy.

I honestly don’t think that the people in our lives cast us off and strike us from the list of useful because we can no longer do all that we once did. We’re the only ones that do that to ourselves.

If we choose to help others, we reclaim our place amongst the doing. We are helping, we are contributing, we are making things easier on the people we love.   There is nothing useless about that, any way you look at it.

If you do a load of laundry for someone who’s working long hours or you clean up their place so they can come home from their second job to a tidy house, do you think they consider you useless? If you’re the one who has time to let out their dogs or feed their cat or pick up their drycleaning or run some packages up to the post office for them, do you think they imagine you worthless?

Not for a second.

Helping out and making ourselves vital members of any team doesn’t take any extraordinary set of training or skill. Only simple desire and some time that so many of us find ourselves with. All we have to do is look and listen.   It doesn’t take much to please someone who is busy and overloaded in their day. Do their ironing for them. Give them a night off from making dinner.  Run up to the store for something they forgot. Give them a nice long foot massage…

We won’t find participation and investment and keeping up and being a part anywhere we look if we are using only our own inabilities as measure. But if we focus on the inabilities of those we love instead and try to make things easier on them, however small an act may seem, we will feel anything but useless.  

If my Mom were here, I’ll bet she’d toss you a rag and tell you the same thing.

See other blogs by Kara Swanson.

From Kara Swanson's Brain Injury Blog. Used with permission. karaswanson.wordpress.com.

Posted on BrainLine August 28, 2010.