Life Meaningless?


The Teacher of the Jewish Assembly, Qoheleth, used to say "Life is meaningless, utterly meaningless!" One of the wisest sages ever, he found the meaning of life through much despairing. With access to all of what life could offer materially speaking, he was certainly qualified to advise. We don't have access to such riches, but we do have his legacy to learn from and apply.
Strolling down a shopping mall recently I heard a group of three buskers playing and singing. As I approached and passed these musicians I heard one of them say to the others, "Not a very receptive bunch today, are they?" I got to thinking. It's a pretty thankless sort of job, busking. You could add this to say, telemarketing. There are many jobs which are thankless, dire, and unsatisfactory.
'Life's not fair, is it?' The opening line in The Lion King is so true. We have these inbuilt dreams - we are born to dream of the things we want, yet how many of us achieve it? We tend to gravitate toward goals that are largely unattainable. And even if we do achieve the lofty goal, it doesn't seem worth it most of the time.
Wisdom is no stroll in the park. It's about accepting the pain of reality. "With much wisdom comes much sorrow," Qoheleth tells us. You can build things and you can count things; you can achieve everything under the sun, and it still won't get you anywhere. You still have life to live. Living is such a paradox; not many really want to die but life is drudgery, plain and simple. You can work and love your work but work won't make you happy. Nothing can make you happy in the long term. You still have to come back to the truth that we're not supposed to be easily pleased. That's life.
Is Work Good or Bad?
We tend to always vacillate between laziness and exhaustion in life. We either want to 'kick back' or take on the world. We get a kick up the behind, or we get burned out! There's no happy, middle ground where we'd be happy simply working and resting and playing appropriately. Qoheleth puts it succinctly: "The fool folds his hands and ruins himself. Better one handful with tranquillity than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind."[1] One handful is patience enough not to be too greedy. It's prepared to wait cheerfully. This person has an attitude of not needing to work as a way of feeling good or competing with someone else. With the attitude of competition, there's envy or ambition that drives the "diligence" of this 'two-handed' work. The Greek word (zlos) or zealous is used, meaning strong affectionor to aspire eagerly after, and this indicates motives to work are far from pure. We need to decide to work free of other reasons. It is simply good, and it's a "gift of God," to work.[2] It is clear that we're to rejoice in our work, that it's our "lot" and our "portion." It's a secret to happiness.[3]
Is Life Really Vanity, Folly and Meaninglessness?
Many things in life simply are a waste of time. They might seem satisfying but the satisfaction is fleeting. Most of life could be described this way. It is an irony of life that the satisfaction that lasts is from nothing we can see. Spirituality is the only way to real and lasting satisfaction. Nothing materially will keep us happy for long. It's the love we feel for a family member that we can't see and can only feel that is eternal. So, most of life is vanity, folly, and ultimately meaningless.
The Septuagint[4] has the word (mataiots) or vanityfolly.[5] The Hebrew equivalent term used is hebel which means, vanityemptiness, something transitory, and ultimatelyunsatisfactory. It means 'religious error' and is ethically inferior. It is ultimately foolishness to engage in vanity, whatever it might be. This theme "is on the constant horizon of Qoheleth's thought."[6]
There are various meanings for this word in various contexts throughout Ecclesiastes. For example, there is a specific example of it meaning "senselessness."[7] Paul uses the wordmataiots and it is translated also as "frustration" in the NIV and TNIV.[8] So, whatever ismeaningless is also frustrating - it's to be diligently avoided. It's a trap.
Wisdom is more powerful and influential than riches. Quiet words of wisdom are to be heeded in preference to the "shouts of a ruler of fools,"[9] but such a small pinch of folly will spoil what potential brilliance wisdom can create. It contaminates the situation making it useless.
Advancement in Life
There's no point in (career) advancement for advancement's sake. It only makes sense if it is part of your calling, part of your passion. How many rich and famous people have spent their entire lives striving for "the dream life" only to find out too late, they missed the point entirely? You could look at the numerous that go off the rails and either lose everything, become mentally ill, or have familial turmoil. What did they get for their goals? - Discontent and pain.
The truth is "time and chance"[10] and things of luck are available to all whether good or bad, wise or foolish, learned or ignorant, strong or weak, rich or poor. We can be trapped where we are at any time, no matter who we are or what we've done, so it's always good to expect the unexpected.
It's also important to know the same fate waits for us all - we all die, whether we've lived wisely or foolishly.[11] Does this mean we have a resignation for 'the way things are' and live a sort of hopelessness that doesn't seek for advancement, at least as far as learning wisdom goes? No, we should advance our learning, but it needs to be motivated by other things than purely advancement. There are a myriad of potential reasons to desire the learning of wisdom, like being equipped to avoid trouble, having healthy relationships, and keeping to a generally straight path, to say nothing of a healthy and inspirational legacy the wise person can leave behind after their death. How are we to be remembered in life? What did our lives stand for? As the Proverbs indicate, "The name of the righteous is used in blessings, but the name of the wicked will rot."[12] We could view this as a legacy to encourage us toward wisdom; true advancement.
Speaking the Truth
It's important to speak the truth as it maintains peace. If you make a promise, keep it, Qoheleth says. None of us realise how much in awe of God we really should be. What we say and do we'll have to answer for; every loose and lying word. Taking the good with the bad and being able to thank God for both is a key to reality living. Good things happen to us and so do bad things. Why should we then curse the bad?
Moreover, why get concerned when others say things about us? We know that we too have cursed others. It's rarely personal. It's not done to mortally wound; just simply a fact of life that our hearts are crooked and depraved and seek for "juicy" words to feed upon, both in speaking and listening. The challenge is to allow ourselves to be taught not to speak of others (or hear of others) in a defaming sort of way, and importantly to not practice the thinking that leads to vitriolic speech. We know how it feels to be hurt by others so why would we allow ourselves to continue doing it unchallenged? What goes around comes around. What we give has a funny way of returning to us.
We need to be painstakingly careful not to transgress people within our minds. As the passage says, "Do not revile the king even in your thoughts, or curse the rich in your bedroom, because a bird of the air may carry your words, and a bird on the wing may report what you say."[13] How often do we say things aloud, in the privacy of our own homes and yet the neighbour knows only too well "how" we live, and what we stand for. We can compare this with what we know (or think) of regarding our own neighbours. There's not that much privacy in life.
People often fall for the trap of cursing today thinking yesterday were so much better. Those on the search for wisdom don't ask such perilous and simultaneously redundant questions. What difference do such assertions make? It doesn't benefit anyone speaking such non-truth when what lies beneath is simply anger or frustration over present challenges. It would be better to deal with the issue at hand, and not waste one's breath and energy. It is perhaps best to revert to Ecclesiastes directly: "In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity consider that God has made the one side by side with the other, so that man may not find out anything that shall be after him."[14] It's not for us to wonder about things that are none of our business. Why would we want to go down the path of misery voluntarily? It might not seem to be the likely outcome, but it invariably is! Those who complain hurt themselves.
Temperament, Worry and Health
How do you handle a tenuous situation? Thomas Jefferson would say to "remain cool and unruffled" no matter the circumstances.[15] This is where resilience and standing reliably firm is so important. Ecclesiastes tells us clearly that the anxiety of worry is again, meaningless. It brings in with it Jesus' teaching[16] about not worrying about tomorrow; that today has enough for us to be occupied with.
In the particular context of youth, it is amazing how many people spend their 'hard earned' on cosmetics to make them age supposedly more gracefully. God must wonder, "They lose their health to make money... and then lose their money to restore their health."[17] It's folly.
We know these days the effect anxiety has on our physical health, not to mention the concerns we might have about physical ailments and our diminishing ability to 'keep up' with younger ones as we grow older. We're counselled to disregard this form of worry.
Anxiety, worry and fear can make us do funny things. We act impulsively, send that email or act in the mood of the moment with little regard for the actual consequences. It's especially an issue for email as we can send them 'broadcast' and only later wish we'd 'recalled' it sooner! I heard of a manager who did this recently - he sent an end of year email congratulating his staff on their efforts, yet made some inflammatory comments about the company's management practices and he was soon 'clearing his office.'
Psalm 37 is quite targeted in highlighting the effects of worry, when the unrighteous get their way and as a result we become envious. Verse 8 in particular is pointed saying in effect: don't fret; it leads only to evil and wrongdoing. In other words, you can only harm yourself, others, and ultimately the situation if you worry, fret, and stress. We need to constantly reflect on this so it can take root in our lives. Any time we 'panic' over everyday life situations we blow our chance at giving our best. No matter what happens we must strive to remain under control and not fret. Worry, fretting, and stress consume excess energy.
Fear of the LORD
This concept is put forth as the major goal of life in Ecclesiastes; to fear God and keep his commandments.[18] In this way it follows other key Hebrew (and Christian) Scripture to a tee. Deuteronomy, Psalms, Proverbs, and Job suggest that to fear God is the basis of not only wisdom, but life.[19] It is this paradox that comes to the fore: fear God and we need fear nothing else. Do the right and fair and just thing, and we stay on a 'straight path' toward eternal living, that is both now, and also in the life to come.
This life of fearing God is nothing about drudgery; it is not burdensome; it is freedom to drink from the 'fountain of life,' which is to experience everything under the sun, within the reasonable bounds God has provided. It is only those with open eyes, ears, and ultimately an open heart who can receive such a message. God wants us to fear him for our own God, not his. We ignore this instruction to our peril. "Life, whether it be play or work, is subject to current and final reviews by God."[20]
For Love or Money
If you amass riches someone else will get it once you're dead and they'll probably squander it. It may be pessimistic but it's true. Naked we come, naked we go. Whoever loves their money will never have enough - and this is insanity. Why would you go after riches when there is "dis-ease" there? One can have only so many "toys." The more you have the more you can tend to worry about. 'Is my such-and-such safe... are my so-forth's alright?' It can create worry, anxiety, stress, and anger when your property is violated. It complicates life. If you're wise you won't fall for such folly. Wisdom is a far better goal than money. Both are a "shelter" but only wisdom "preserves the life of its possessor."[21]
This is what Dionysius the Great said of the possession of wisdom:
"Being minded, therefore, to show what kinds of possessions remain with the possessor, and continue steadily and maintain themselves for him, he adds: 'Also my wisdom remained with me.' For this alone remains, and all these other things, which he has already reckoned up, flee away and depart. Wisdom, therefore, remained with me, and I remained in virtue of it."[22]
This section juxtaposes the benefits of wisdom in warding off folly and madness, that this heavenly wisdom is truly a gift of God. And it's available to all. After all, does not Wisdom cry out aloud for all to hear?[23] Yet how many do not answer? Ignorance begets a tendency toward mental instability. We know that a lack of love can cause mental illness, so why would not a lack of wisdom also set up the 'ecosystem' where folly and madness might germinate and thrive?[24]
We're told in wisdom literature that consistency is the key. As my mother used to say, "You can't have your cake and eat it too." We can't chop and change regarding righteousness and worldliness and expect only "good" results.
A Time and A Way to Do Everything
It is of real comfort to us to know that there is a proper time and a proper way to do all things - there is a solution to every situation and problem. When we're requested to do something by a "kingly" figure we should comply with the request willingly and have the faith to know 'there is a way.' For our buskers from the beginning of the article there is a way to receive the support they required; perhaps it was just the wrong day they played or perhaps it was the wrong choice of location to play?
Given that there is a "right" way and time in every situation perhaps it's about choosing our attitude, in the moment. This is Emotional Intelligence (EI). The moment we're able to 'deduce' the exact emotional and mental response to an interpersonal or intrapersonal situation is the instant we demonstrate EI competence. This is the ability to reflect in-the-moment to change our approach or response as we do it, and not afterwards when the mistake has already been made. When we are EI competent there are less 'sorry's' because we adjusted prior to hurting someone. It is only through the use of EI competence and strategies that we can truly, consistently, and respectfully serve our fellows. For times when we are confused or don't know the right response, we need to learn how to delay, cope with, and/or shift focus and emphasis.
Wisdom's and Life's Ironies
More is often less and less is often more in this life, as the paradoxes and ironies perplex even the wisest of human beings. Our appetites can never be satisfied. Our desires need to be disciplined or they get us into trouble.
Life is short, fleeting in fact. We think we're here for ever. It's an illusion, time. Be careful, it's going quicker than you think, and a terrific irony is we wish it were over at times. How we'd rue that if it came to pass (our death) in that moment. Be grateful.
It's better and safer to find yourself in the house of mourning than that of laughter or feasting. It's better to be told off than be lied to about 'how good you are.' Wisdom living is not about personal comfort; it's about truth and reality. It's always better to finish strongly than to start well and then end poorly. We should consider wisdom an inheritance. We need to supply it to our loved ones and charge them with doing the same, carrying the message through the ages.
Nothing is New
Besides new technology, nothing is new; we only re-badge what's already been discovered. We may think we're creating something unique but it's all been done before, only in a different way with different people, in a different environment. There's nothing wrong with re-badging. We just shouldn't get too caught up in anything we're doing - it's not "ours." It's someone else's and always has been, and always will be. Don't hold on to things, ideas, concepts, visions. The treat is knowing something personally - that he (God) shared it with you in such an intimate way.
The ultimate thing that is not new is "vanity." This is to say "no single part of God's good world can unlock the meaning to life. Life, in and of itself, is unable to supply the key to the questions of identity, meaning, purpose, value, enjoyment, and destiny. Only in coming to know God can onebegin to find answers to these questions."[25] [Italics added for emphasis.]
Wisdom and Foolishness
Patience is superior to pride, and a tranquil spirit is for the wise. The trouble with anger is dissipation. We lose our cool and then have a heap of residual feelings and effects to deal with. The release of this type of energy is never controlled; it's never perfect. There's always fall-out.
There's a process involved in the development of foolishness. "Wickedness is folly and ... foolishness is madness."[26] It's a downward spiral toward relative insanity. The corrective is penitence; a turning from the wicked way. To discover that our hearts are the basis of the problem is freedom. At least from this viewpoint we can prevent "becoming the fool" with an act of courage to turn from the sin, provided we're at aware of this tendency toward iniquity.
One such inherent folly is to be seduced sexually. The Scriptures always discuss the young man being 'ensnared' by the adulteress, but there are cultural relevancies for both genders. I can only imagine what it is like for a more carnal man; we're all challenged by sexual appetites and desires, be they mere physical attraction or more. The wisdom approach is to run very fast the other way; it is active avoidance of any questionable contact with someone who might lead us astray. We are to maintain a straight path with God.
Righteousness is rare, perhaps one in one thousand, as the writer contends, and it is clear that we all have gone in search of many (devious) schemes. Jesus followed this sentiment in saying, "This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil."[27] The irony is it's only when we admit this that we're open to receiving help. We disregard it to our peril. Too many "good" people think they're beyond this simple fact in their own experience. The truth is we are never beyond this; not one of us.
Furthermore, those who're engaged in sin will be trapped "in" it and those who 'lord it over' others inevitably also hurt themselves.[28] Think of any action we might take to defend ourselves or go after another for an offense committed against us. The moment we even conceive a response in the violence of anger, is the moment the brain releases chemicals into our bloodstream that are not good, especially if that is the predominant response in us. In other words, we hurt our own health when we react in anger.
To illustrate, say we're on the roadway and someone cuts us off unintentionally; it's an honest mistake. For some reason we're suddenly ropable and furious within. We've had a long, arduous day and not much has gone right, and now this 'buffoon' has shown the height of incompetence! Suddenly, we're after them. The moment we left a state of psychological homeostasis is the moment of birth of perhaps a physical action based in the violence of anger. There is such a quick, momentary transition from feeling, to thought, to action. A millisecond elapses. Thought inevitably leads to action. There is wisdom in delaying this foolish thinking, and ultimately it's wise to train ourselves away from these quick responses.
Diligence
We could be forgiven for thinking the life message according to Qoheleth is to 'eat and drink and make your soul enjoy good of its labor, for it is a gift of God.' It is after all, the refrain that's repeated no less than six times.[29] A simple message perhaps, but one that carries quite a punch; simply work and rest, and enjoy both!
To cast our bread upon the waters is to 'have a go' at life, and not be a spectator.[30] If we bow out too often in life, we'll risk missing out altogether. Bowing out is an action driven by fear. When the time has come for a thing to happen, it will happen and there is nothing that can be done other than simply prepare for it - preparation is diligence. "Luck is where opportunity meets preparation," as Denzel Washington said. Because of the uncertainty of life, we should be doubly motivated in our preparedness. Not knowing is no excuse, and throwing our hands in the air in resignation is never going to be helpful. We can't hope to know everything, and a humble acceptance that life will be as it is, is the best plan. "Be prepared," as Baden-Powell would say.
Conclusion
Throughout this text of Ecclesiastes there is at times thought that goes from one side or one extreme to the other. For instance, the day of death is said to be better than the day of birth, yet "anyone who is among the living has hope-even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!"[31] Both conditions of thought are relevant and both apply. This is a fundamental perplexion of life. Both fit, albeit situationally. God favours the living it is said. It couldn't be any better said than this then, could it?
"Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun-all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom."[32]
The last sentence tells us that there is no choice where we're going. Life is finished. We best do what we wish, for ourselves and others, while we can; work, plan, acquire knowledge and wisdom, and do it now.
Perhaps another outcome to seek after is to be grateful. This person "seldom reflects on the days of their lives, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart."[33] Normally we think of reflection as a good, positive activity. But we are apt to reflect on what we don't have, and what is missing in our lives so much more. To be cheerfully happy and content in the moment must be the chief goal of life.
Wisdom is a breath of fresh air bringing light to the face and gait to the step. We are freer, and ultimately more able, more responsive, and more willing to serve, and we get even more life from it, which again leads to more growth and opportunities at wisdom. It's an upward spiral. It is tremendously freeing that we can gain so much wisdom, and yet know we still can't know everything. We can know many things, but there are fewer things that we can truly comprehend.[34] This is good, because it releases us from perfection.
Ecclesiastes has its share of hyperbole, but it makes eternally salient points at every turn. It's not a good idea to dream too much. It's always a better idea to not want too much. It's better by far to stay in reality. We must surely know the end of these things - we will be judged. It is a special thing to know this and yet not be hindered by it. We are free, yet judgment will come. Accept it and move on.
It all ends as it starts and starts as it ends - that's life. Is life meaningless? Yes, of course it is. And this is precisely why God is so important. For without God life is truly meaningless; with him however, life is abundant, rich, and flowing with grace. Of all the people who insist on a 'claim to know God' but in reality never quite draw on the reality of his truth, Ecclesiastes is the enduring message. "The need is as great for many believers who are held in cultural captivity as it is for unbelievers, who likewise swim in the eddies [currents or whirlpools] of our day and pursue pagan solutions to the questions of life and truth."[35] God is the secret to life.