I’m re-reading Ecclesiastes.
Even if you haven’t picked up a Bible, you know Ecclesiastes. You know it if you have listened to ‘Turn, Turn, Turn‘ by the Byrds, or have heard ‘there is nothing new under the sun’, ‘vanity — all is vanity’, and other familiar quotations which have come from this contentious book in the Old Testament. I say contentious, because it lays out the case for existential despair, without a clear message of hope.
I’m reading this now, because of an article written by Douglas Groothuis in Touchstone magazine. Dr. Groothuis is a professor of philosophy with a keen interest in epistemology: “the study of the nature, means, and scope of knowledge.” His thesis is that Ecclesiastes is an excellent treatise about obtaining wisdom and a good pivot for understanding our ignorance within a larger structure of knowledge.
The main voice in the narrative of Ecclesiastes is Qohelet, the Teacher, who claims to have been a king of Israel in Jerusalem (a ‘son of David’). He chronicles his search for knowledge and meaning, but concludes that it is all “chasing after the wind.”
In sum, Qohelet declares that there can be nothing new in this world (under the sun), where we all toil endlessly, live briefly, and are forgotten quickly. The old sun “pants” across the horizon in exhausted labor. The wicked may or may not prosper; the good may or may not suffer – all meet the same end. Individuals obsessed with material goods will never be satisfied with the goods they own. In fact, there is no reward that can fully satisfy in this earthly existence. He sees humankind as endlessly cycling through failed behaviors — rinse and repeat.
Qohelet describes his disappointment in chasing wisdom through either work or pleasure-seeking – and concludes that it might be better to have never lived, than to try to make sense of this world. He has no hope for succeeding generations — and seems resentful at God for instilling the concept of ‘eternity’ in the human mind, when our lives are so truncated.
Yikes! Not much to hold onto, here…
Yet, he is not entirely clear that his search was wasted effort. For instance, he settles for the conclusion that it is better to earn some wisdom, than to be a fool. He urges an epicurean approach to life by moderation of desire, cultivation of companionship, and enjoyment of daily bread. He says that although none of our existence makes sense, we should find joy in what is available – after all, it is a gift from God. He also says that what you turn your hand to – “do it with all your might”.
In other words, make your own meaning. Make it count. Live morally and purposely, even if God’s overall plan is inscrutable.
Qoholet tried to achieve ultimate understanding and determined it was an exercise in vanity. His fallback position is to find happiness in everyday activity. This starts to make sense for me. The happiest folks I have known find joy in all the ordinary things they experience. I used to play golf with a man who obtained delight in finding an unbroken golf tee on the grass. Don wasn’t a fool – he knew the difference between small and tall travails. But he chose to be open to all gifts under the sun. The interesting part is that the rest of our foursome delighted in his delight – he lifted us up. It’s catching. And maybe that is the hope for us who struggle under the sun. James Oppenheim said:
“The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance
The wise man grows it under his feet.” I can live with that.
Wal’s piece is timely. In this moment of extreme caution and reduced freedoms, it is so easy to fall prey to feelings of loss and powerlessness. Those of us with silver (or is it “slivers of”) hair, who have arrived at the point in our lives where we can travel, spend more time with friends, watch our carefully planned investments grow, find ourselves suddenly quarantined, fearful of catching germs that are more fatal to us than our children, and worried if we’ll be around long enough to recoup our financial losses. Everyone’s world was turned upside down in a matter of weeks but with the hope and belief that in time we will return to the lives we knew. But we “Over the Hill Gang” members are wondering if it will happen in the time we have remaining.
If our goal in life was to live mainly for this retirement period so that, after a life of hard work and frugal practices we could finally enjoy, we feel robbed, certain that life is unfair, even worse than Quohelet espoused. (At least we had a plan and hope that in the end, we’d catch up and all would be sandy beaches, warm sunshine, and comfortable living.)
However, if we considered his fallback position to find happiness in every day choices, we’re in a very different place. We have memories of times well spent and of contentment and joy. Even now it’s not too late to initiate a mind-shift and focus on what we have rather than what we lost. Whether it’s a temporary loss or long term, we can all find gains if we really want to.
Many years ago I had cause to look back on my life to put in perspective whether it was a life, if ending, was well lived and complete, or found wanting. I found peace in knowing that what I was able to accomplish and who I was able to be, was enough. And while I am most happy and grateful that my time continues, that experience helped me shorten my moments of struggle with those things of which I have no control, and to spend more of my time with those things that I do.
Perhaps the response to Quohelet’s findings that seeking knowledge and meaning is all “chasing after the wind” is to adjust what we bring to the meaning of seek to allow for discovery along the way and not fixate on uncovering the source-answer to life.
Pessimism at It’s Height
I am not a Bible person. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in God. It is clear to me that the Bible is not the word of God but was written by worldly beings as imperfect as you or I. They were almost like reporters of their times recording what was going on and trying to explain it. Some of it even sounds like real fake news and preposterous to me.
But this guy, Quoholet, is the penultimate pessimist! I thought I was pessimistic but I wither in comparison. I am not claiming to have any stature like he had but come on! Ultimately cycling through failed behaviors and nothing new under the sun? Really? That may fit if one lived forever but we know that isn’t true. Our existence, if lucky, lasts for maybe 8 or 10 decades, a relatively short time in the scope of the age of the earth and the prehistoric record of life on it. So perhaps cycles repeat themselves but we rarely live long enough to see that happen so to me, anyway, things seem new when they happen for the first time in my experience. Is this sheltering in side and social distancing that is going on now not new to most of us? It sure feels that way to me. And what is new anyway? To me it is something that I have for the first time or never experienced before.
And perhaps the reason we cycle through failed behaviors is simply because this all seems new to us and we have to find our own ways way through them. This can’t be any more relevant than right now as we all sit in our homes and try to figure out what on earth are we supposed to do to protect ourselves, our families and our society. So we try things…. we wash our hands for two Happy Birthdays every couple of hours because we may have touched something contaminated. We use sanitary wipes to wipe off the gas nozzle, the steering wheel, our doorknobs and counters. We avoid crowds. Living alone I wonder if families sit at night 6 feet away from each other watching TV. Thank goodness my dog isn’t human because he is on my lap most of the time. Are these “failed behaviors?” I wish I knew because my hands wouldn’t be as coarse and flaky as they are if this is just a failed behavior. But we try things to see our way through. We take the advice of people who have experienced similar things and hope they are right.
And as for material goods, I have to admit I like collecting stuff, too. I have several collections in my house of material things that I covet, I know you aren’t supposed to covet either, at least certain things! But I do! I have a Jeep that I treasure, a house that I love and a collection of paintings that I enjoy daily. And will more than likely continue to collect until my time here is spent.
Should people our ages not get excited when their first grandchild is born? Isn’t that new to them? Or should they just shrug it off and say, “Oh well this has happened before! No big deal!” Or when the autumn leaves turn bright colors should we not be amazed at the beauty just because it happens each year? Or when a piece of music touches your memories and your soul should it not bring us to tears because it is just another piece of noise? I am exaggerating of course, as I also do along with my pessimistic ways. I have left most snarkiness out of this though, which is also characteristic of me.
I am usually the one in this group accused of pessimism but this guy makes me look like Shirley Temple. I see myself in a whole new light. Join me as I tap dance down a flight of stairs now!