How to live life. That’s what the book of Ecclesiastes is about, beginning with first the line about everything is vanity to the concluding one about fearing (a.k.a. respect) God and obeying his commands bookends its theme. Its message is its wiser to be honest and confess struggles than to let them consume you.
One definition of vanity is almost the opposite of what is commonly thought (excessive pride in or admiration of one’s own appearance or achievements) to that of being worthless or futile as in “the vanity of human wishes.” Living within God purpose for our life delivers us from the latter definition of vanity.
I read once that Ecclesiastes does not pretend to preach the good news. Rather, it points to a God-centered worldview rather than falling victim to frustrations and unanswerable questions of the meaning of life. Pointedly this book tells us everything is meaningless (mentioned 40 times), life is random and eventually we are all going to die. Proverbs is inspiring by citing good things to do for favorable outcomes. But let’s face it, bad people get away with doing the wrong things, they seem to succeed in life meanwhile we try to follow wisdom and seem to suffer for it. As hard as it is to remember, considering eternity, the situation is temporal. G. K. Chesterton is quoted as saying the riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man. This wisdom book teaches how to live through guidance which is a gospeling of Jesus and his tangible way of approaching human life.
“Qohelet” (the definition meaning travels through the translations from Latin of the Greek to this Hebrew word to the meaning of Ecclesiastes) is used a nom de plume for the author typically thought to be Solomon. He laments life as meaningless because, no matter what you do, at the end of the day you cannot take it with you, it is left behind when you die. What makes things worse, says the writer, is that God is responsible for this meaninglessness. This critic is angry with God for unjustly making it so. It initially appears Qohelet does not believe in an afterlife compensating for this training ground we live in now.
Everything having a “season” is of no comfort for Qohelet, but a source of despair. The writer says there is no profit or gain possible. And if some temporary profit or gain appears, eventually the great leveler death cancels it out. The Egyptian pharaohs try to beat the system and bury their wealth at their death (to include their slaves, part of the inventory of royal property, that were killed when the pharaoh died). The pharaohs reasoned they could take their property with them to the afterlife and have it then as well.
Ecclesiastes reads pessimism and cynicism. But that is not how to live. British born theologian J. L. Packer says the theme of Ecclesiastes is however about joy wrapped in realism and reverence, with humility and restraint, coolly and contentedly, and in wisdom. Ecclesiastes 2:26 supports that statement. He says it is all about discovering how under God ordinary things can bring joy which is the cure for cynicism. It’s a matter of being grateful.
There’s been research done on gratitude and whether it is a mindset that works for everybody. It’s compared to exercise. Just as there are ways to exercise other than running, so it is with gratitude; there are many types and reasons to acknowledge it. I recall my gratitude to regulate my emotional state to drive away fears. Mindfulness, saying prayers of thanksgiving, taking moments to savor victories from the past, and being more generous with my time and care help set the tone of my outlook.
To make further sense of Ecclesiastes, Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s recommends the idea of “living the questions daily.” He continues “Don’t search for the answers, which if we are honest were given to us when we want them we may not be able to live with them. And the point is to live everything, to include the questions now. Perhaps then, someday in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer (in the fullness of time).”
There are many inquiries in life worth asking, and perhaps another is through the process of living we become wise in understanding, not every query needs an answer.
There is a time for everything, and a season for each activity under the heavens:
“A time to be born and a time to die,
A time to plant and a time to uproot,
A time to kill and a time to heal,
A time to tear down and a time to build,
A time to weep and a time to laugh,
A time to mourn and a time to dance,
A time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
A time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
A time to search and a time to give up,
A time to keep and a time to throw away,
A time to tear and a time to mend,
A time to be silent and a time to speak,
A time to love and a time to hate,
A time for war and a time for peace.” (Eccl. 3:1-8)
There is seasonal weather change each year, some more dramatic than others. Each season can provide rich metaphors to teach us about how to live. We are, after all, creatures of the natural world and its cycles are our cycles too. God ultimately is the creator of the season’s cycles. It stands to reason He will be there in the seasons of my life. Parker Palmer in his There is a Season essay writes: “(The metaphor) seasons is a wise (symbol) for the movement of life, I think. It suggests that life is neither a battlefield nor a game of chance, but is infinitely richer, more promising, more real. The notion that our lives are like the eternal cycle of the seasons does not deny the struggle or the joy, the loss or the gain, the darkness or the light, but encourages us to embrace it all – and to find in all of it the opportunities for growth.”
Most recent and my most significant memory is the reference to a time to be born and a time to die. I had the privilege to see a granddaughter draw her first breath during the Spring season, a few months earlier in winter my mom drew her last dying breath. I, mirroring others before, participated in the age-old ritual of assisting someone in their childbirth and then witnessing the last moments of another dying, two things for the most part traditionally observe and attended by women.
It’s comforting (when times are difficult) and more pleasant (in sad times) to know whatever is happening, this too pass. There is a season in life for everything, and these are repetitive patterns although not during the same timeline for each person. Aging has the added benefit of knowing we will survive what was once unthinkable in life or insurmountable. Virginia Woolf in her book Mrs. Dalloway wrote “the compensation of growing old (is) that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained the power which adds the supreme flavor to existence the power of taking hold of an experience, of turning it around, slowly, in the light to reexamine it.”
The evolution of change to conversion, isolation to detachment, darkness to light, are topics in the book Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope. The disparity from fear to courage, powerlessness to surrender, vulnerability to security, are also singled out subjects. All those seeming paradoxes along with the exhaustion enduring the scarring from transformation comes to the ultimate irony of hope insists Sister Joan, the book’s author.
One of my indulgent mental escape routes is Sci-Fi time travel stories. Once in conversation after seeing one of the many Star Trek movies on time travel, I was thinking out loud, forgetting my original source, about how we are fascinated with eternity because God planted that seed in all our hearts. Deep down in the human heart, God has placed the notion of “eternity” (Eccl. 3:11 Jer. 31:33): the desire to know, as God knows, how everything fits together with everything else to produce lasting value, glory, and satisfaction. St. Augustine comes from the opening paragraph of his Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” I think some who do not believe in God may ponder time travel; living forever on earth, long enough to understand it all. Philosopher Blaise Pascal points out in his works written half a millennium ago that “In every man’s heart there is an emptiness that only God can fill with his Son.”
Some of my efforts in life are seeds planted in a garden I will never see. I am not a gardener extraordinaire, but I do plant flowers and shrubs, think through the landscape and positioning of the sun when I go about it. When I was a military wife, we moved about every two years. I still planted, never seeing the final fruit of my little garden’s maturity. I used to think of it as my giving a housewarming gift to the next military wife. There is a Greek proverb along the same line: a society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in. He who plants a garden believes in tomorrow. This is one of the ways to live.
God plants the seeds (of eternity) in our hearts which contributes to our asking life the inexplicable questions and desiring the answer. Ecclesiastes is also known as the book of “Why?”
To be honest, I want to leave a legacy, leave my fingerprints on an accomplishment that outlasts me. This desire probably encompasses both definitions of the word “vanity” used in Ecclesiastes. To keep everyone humble, it never fails whenever I gush too much to people about my kids about something then, like clockwork, they turn around to do another thing to done to negate it. Still, my greatest legacy is my children, and that, in the end, will be enough.
The heartbreaking part of parenting for me is when children grow up and set out on their own. Even if that is the desired outcome to train them for the responsibilities of adulthood. “Making the decision to have a child is momentous.” said writer Elizabeth Stone. “It is to decide forever to have your heart walking around outside your body.”
I have a friend who is the last living descendant and namesake of his family line. At this late date in his life, he won’t be having children, and his eyes brim with tears when he speaks of it. In attempts to console him in this conversation, I would think and recommend other ways he could leave a legacy that would outlive him (through his writing for example). It is just one idea while keeping in mind what Isaiah 56:5 says “I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” The World, unfortunately, conditions us, most notably here in America, to only look at those things that are “under the sun” (Solomon’s code for worldly things) as being sustaining enough in our existence.
In his memoir (When Air becomes Breath) neurosurgeon and writer Paul Kalanithi and co-writer Abraham Verghese, has a captivating viewpoint which I read the same year of my own personal experience with death, birth, and breath. Part of Paul and his wife’s consideration to have a child all the while knowing Paul was diagnosed with cancer which did not leave him much time on earth; his wife asks “Don’t you think that saying goodbye to a child would make your death more painful?”
He responded, “Wouldn’t it be great if it did?”
Wow, what a thought of the joy and meaning when begetting a child that is so prodigious, that it would be his way to outlive death with this legacy?
What Fred Buechner describes in Beyond Words: “To have grandchildren is not only to be given something but to be given something back. You are given back something of your children’s childhood all those years ago. It is not only your own genes that are part of your grandchildren but the genes of all sorts of people, they never knew but who, through them, will play some part in times and places they never dreamed of. And of course, along with your genes, they will also carry their memories of you into those times and places too. In the meantime, they are the freshest and fairest you have. After you’re gone, it is mainly because of them that the earth will not be as if you never walked on it.”