This post is probably going to be a bit depressing. Of course it’s not wholly my fault. I just read the whole book of Ecclesiastes in one sitting, allowing a waterfall of memories, thoughts, realities and feelings to come cascading out of my head into the open. What has been the purpose of my life so far? What’s the point of anything? Why do I think, write, or feel? Why does culture rush at such a breakneck speed? As I look out of my window I see hundreds of little cars hurrying to and fro, they are like little ants scurrying about. Everyone is a person with a dream. A dream that will ultimately fail to give them happiness. Should I break their pursuit and crush their hope now? Or should I let them keep pursing their unobtainable dream?
Solomon’s disheartening book on the vanity of life has always been my best friend. At times when nothing in the world (or even in the Bible) made sense, I could always read the Ecclesiast and ask “what’s the point… of anything?” In fact, the very first blog I ever wrote, probably at least five or six years ago, was focused on the idea of chasing after wind and always being unable to catch it. This was, of course, borrowed from the book of Ecclesiastes. Perhaps the last blog I will ever write will be about the same thing… I reckon that would be fitting. Today is somewhere in between, though where exactly, I haven’t a clue.
WOULD YOU PICK THE RED PILL OR THE BLUE PILL?
In the first Matrix film, the hero (Neo) exists in a predictably mundane world, exactly like our own. He lives in a small apartment and works in a large forest of bleak grey cubicles. After a few strange events his ordinary life unravels leading to a climactic moment where he is offered two choices in the form of two pills, one red, the second blue. The blue pill (blue being the color of tranquility and peace) would allow him to forget any disruptions to his quiet life, and continue living in ignorance and bliss. The red pill (red being the color of life, blood, pain) would reveal the true nature of reality and existence, however painful or frightening it is. Neo picks the red pill, only to wake up in a dark and grim world, where mankind is enslaved inside an advanced computer program called the Matrix. The things people so eagerly chase after, including those that Neo himself thought were so important, turn out to be merely hyper-realistic computer simulations that tricked the brain into thinking they were real. Everything he has considered valuable is revealed to be meaningless. What if you had to pick one of two options, a comfortable lie or a painful truth, which would you choose?
“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”
-Morpheus in Matrix
At this moment, Neo, who once was a part of this simulated world, becomes an outsider, looking in. The things that mattered so greatly, do not matter much anymore. The things people obsess about, hardly matter to him. The job that he went to every day is now revealed as a pointless simulation. The social structures that he so longed to fit into, are now shown to be largely meaningless. The people who are so busy, scurrying around to do their errands are on missions that are completely vain and useless. Neo has acquired wisdom about the reality of this existence, and now finds it to be very painful. Inside the matrix, Neo can see people give away their life to the pursuit of wealth, social status, pleasure, and etc. But now that he is outside of the matrix can see those lives are meaningless. Neo finally sees the world through different eyes, finally understanding the cruel way things work, and is filled with grief.
Solomon too, realizes we live in a metaphorical matrix, and speaks of his grief which is nourished by this knowledge. First he says that everything is futile or “all is vanity” and later he adds that knowing and understanding this vanity is a painful experience. “Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain” (Ecc 1:18 NASB). The more you learn about the futility of peoples earth-oriented actions all around you, the more you will experience grief and a sense of isolation. You will see a crowd finding their ultimate joy and purpose in social status, and you will only sense the feeling of grief as you realize time is fleeting and soon everyone will die, those who were popular will be as the impoverished slaves of the past; dead.
4 LIFE GOALS THAT ARE MEANINGLESS
Solomon is unique in the history of the world because he was one of the very few people in this world that has been able to fulfill every single desire in his heart. Every freaking desire. I have been chasing my desires for some twenty six years now, and they are still so far away. I am now learning to accept that I will never get all the things I dream about (yes that’s depressing). But I still feel like they exist out there somewhere, even if they are surrounded by a hazy mist. To me, and most of us, they still have some beauty because we haven’t tasted them yet. Solomon, on the other hand, got them all. And then he basically says, “I’ve tried everything that appeared good, pleasurable, and desirable, and yet it’s all meaningless because very soon I will die and the very joy I’ve been pursuing, I have never caught” (Ecc 2:10-11).
I wonder how I would feel if I was able to get everything that I wanted? Would I finally realize that my dreams are like a rainbow that never ends? That I keep running to the edge of this rainbow, dreaming of a pot of gold, only to see the rainbow ever before me. Chasing it, but never being able to catch it. And one day, after many years of this hopeless and unrewarding chase I would die a lonely and unsatisfying death. That is the premise of Solomon’s wisdom. Everyone lives for a few moments, chasing after the wind only to die, and no one is remembered (Ecc 1:11, 3:20).
And what do we do? What the bloody hell do we do? We chase dreams and rainbows, always running after the next big thing, ever searching for joy and meaning. And that is why your life is probably meaningless, because you’re still with me, chasing fairy tale rainbows of joy and meaning that you will never catch, instead of treasuring every simple moment for a purpose outside yourself. Solomon talks of a few things that are vanity, or futile/pointless. I find we are all enraptured by the pursuit of these, here is my paraphrase of Solomon:
1. The Vanity of Knowledge and Wisdom
Doesn’t matter what you learn, and how much you write, because one day you will be dead. The grave is coming for the fool and the wise man and reduces both to a frail and lifeless body, one that is forgotten and neglected. Neither will be remembered. Dedicating your life to this is futile. (Eccl 2:12-16)
2. The Vanity of Toil and Productivity
You can work hard and build a thousand empires, but you will not be able to enjoy them. You will die alone and leave your money and wealth to another man. Even if you built great systems and a great kingdom, others may come and ruin everything after you. Dedicating your life to this is futile. (Eccl 2:17-26)
3. The Vanity of Wealth and Honor
You are born naked and you will go naked to your death, there is nothing you can take with you. Death will rob you of everything you live your life for. Every gram of gold will be left behind. Every compliment and form of adoration will cease once you are dead. Dedicating your life to this is futile. (Eccl 5:08-20)
4. The Vanity of Beauty and Pleasure
Regardless of how much you can enjoy the pleasures of life, from great food and wine, or entertainment and music, even sex and beauty, you will find that none of them will give you lasting pleasure. In the end it is all meaningless, for when you die, you no longer feel the pleasure. Dedicating your life to this is futile. (Eccl 2:1-11)
The appeal of an intoxicating lie is stronger than a sobering truth.
In the Matrix film there is one character who hates the bitter reality of life outside the matrix. He formulates a deal to have his memory (of reality) erased, and jumps back into the Matrix, in order to live a life of pleasure and experiences. He gives up a painful reality in order to blindly enjoy a fantasy. Sometimes it’s far easier for us to join him. We are reminded of the sobering reality that is the end of our pursuits and the futility of it all. We imagine the question we would ask when we finally get what we are chasing, such as “what happens when I finally become rich, famous, smart, or beautiful? Once I finally obtain everything I want, what then? What will there be for me? What will I pursue once I’ve caught everything I want?” And these dark questions lead us to rush back into the world of where the blind lead the blind fairy tale expeditions and rainbow chases. Pursuing vanity and futility numbs our existential fear better than admitting we have nothing in control and are completely helpless in this world. Embracing hobbies and pleasures numbs the pain of our upcoming death. Collecting seashells and trading cards makes us feel like everything is still ok.
WHY THEN SHOULD WE LIVE?
What is left then? Either grasp at the false hope of a rainbow chase to embrace an intoxicating lie? Or to live in the bitter and dark reality of a world that is vain and futile? Either blind yourself to the reality of a cold universe of impending death and pretend collecting seashells really does matter? Or yield yourself to the imminent reality that will destroy everything you have achieved? Both are equally depressing and equally hopeless. Should we give up on life because death will reduce all to nothingness? What does our guide in the land of vanity say? Solomon, I believe, gives the only possible answer for our predicament in a two part answer.
1. Don’t live for the vanities of life, but do enjoy the gift that is life.
“Here is what I have seen to be good and fitting: to eat, to drink and enjoy oneself in all one’s labor in which he toils under the sun during the few years of his life which God has given him; for this is his reward.” (Eccl 5:18)
2. Nothing matters but God, reorient your existence around his.
“When all has been heard, the conclusion of the matter is: fear God and keep His commands, because this is for all humanity” (Eccl 12;13)
And that’s it. Perhaps it is a bitter pill that kills your dreams of glory and grandeur, but it is the only real hope in this universe: live well, enjoy what you have, don’t pursue vanity, honor God, and die well; everything else is meaningless. This is all there is for humanity, but it is more than enough. People often pursue dreams and want to achieve things, and those things, upon achievement, fade into meaningless, and only lead to further pursuits after wind. They say Jesus pursued our reconciliation and as he died on the cross he said “it is finished.” I guess that would mean that he is the only one who truly achieved the finality of his pursuit. I take it as another reminder to stop looking for meaning in fleeting things I may achieve, and instead rest in the unchanging thing Jesus achieved.
When all is said and done little else matters except the One who said “it’s done.”