A value added life
It is hard to question the status quo. Greek philosopher Socrates went on trial and faced execution for his alleged destructive influence on the youth of his day. In his own defence, he famously said ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ and he would continue to speak and seek the truth about life. He simply felt compelled to examine and question it - pursuing this truth was the only life he thought worth living.
This post is one of a series will take a long, hard look at life and ask the question: why is everything the way that it is? We will be following Socrates and his claim that the `unexamined life is not worth living’. However, we will be examining life not through his eyes but through the eyes and thoughts of a biblical philosopher.
Before we start though, it is worth asking why we should do this at all.
The first reason is that in this day and age we examine life so rarely. When we finish all the tasks of the day, we don’t want to think too much about anything. And so we don’t. Instead, we turn on the TV and let it entertain us. This is the case for me. After the working day and after I’ve wrestled my two boys into bed, I certainly don’t sit down and read some philosophy or ponder the meaning of life. I collapse on the couch. This series will give all of us ‘lazy thinkers’ an opportunity to think hard about something more important than what we need to get done on the weekend.
The second reason we should examine life is because if it does have a meaning and purpose, it seems reasonable to assume that grasping that meaning would help us live our lives in a better way. Here at the beginning we need to face a harsh reality. The process of closely examining our lives may not be pleasant. Of course, most things of value require some degree of difficulty, pain or endurance. This is no different. When we are forced to be honest with ourselves and take a close look at what the Bible has to say, we may hear things we don’t like. This is undeniable, but in truth, when did any of us learn anything when we only heard things we already thought and agreed with?
But we have an opportunity to question the status quo of our lives.
With these preliminary points out of the way, let’s take a closer look at the book we will be studying – Ecclesiastes from the Old Testament of the Bible.
What does a person gain in this life?
The book of Ecclesiastes is an examination of reality. It is the writings of a Biblical philosopher from around 1000 BC who is searching for meaning and purpose in life. He looks hard at reality and comes to some ruthless conclusions. His first question, which shapes the whole book in some ways, is ‘what does a person gain in this life?’ He is asking: what do we achieve in life? What value do we add? What key performance indicators can we meet? The very first sentence he writes is this:
The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: 2 Vanity , Vanity says the Teacher. "Utter vanity! All is vanity." 3 What does man gain from all his labour at which he toils under the sun? (Ecclesiastes 1:1-3)
Our thinker sums up life and our contribution to it in one word: vanity. He looks at all reality, and in sentence 2 concludes that ‘all is vanity’. Basically he is saying: ‘Breath of breaths. Everything is but a breath. All is transient. Nothing lasts. Nothing is of substance. Everything is insubstantial.’
Life is like the condensation on a mirror in the bathroom.
Life is like the condensation on a mirror in the bathroom. You breathe out a breath and there is condensation there for a moment, but a moment later it is gone. Nothing lasts. If he lived now, he would prove his case by pointing to a mate of mine in Brisbane who just lost his job. He lost his job and his whole team lost their jobs. And not only did they lose their jobs but none of their work was kept. Two entire years of a programming team’s work – gone. Not a line of their code was purchased or kept. No one kept their work. No one bought their work. They have nothing to show after two years of work.
It is bleak to recognise this reality and it is bleak to think about it. And so, at this point, you might be wondering: is this biblical philosopher just some crazy guy having a moment of existential despair? Will he drag us down with him? It seems not. The author of the book of Ecclesiastes is the ‘Teacher’. We are supposed to understand him as a wise guy. If we look at sentences one and 12 we read: ‘Son of David, King in Jerusalem.’ The son of David, the King of Jerusalem, was Solomon. According to other parts of the Bible, Solomon was the wisest man the ancient world ever knew. So, this writer is saying he is Solomon or he writes as Solomon. He is plugging himself as the wisest kid on the Ancient Near East Bloc. And, he has searched for wisdom. He says:
I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven. What a heavy burden God has laid on men! (Ecclesiastes 1:12-13)
I thought to myself, "Look, I have grown and increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge." (Ecclesiastes 1:16)
He is the wisest man known and has done some hard thinking, and he is asking the question: what value does humanity add?
What value does humanity add?
What does man gain from all his labour at which he toils under the sun? (Ecclesiastes 1:3)
Men and women toil and toil and toil, and what do they gain under the sun? What have we got to show for all our blood, sweat and tears? The conclusion he comes to is: nothing. Now, he is not saying that our work and the things we do have no meaning in themselves. They do have meaning.
However, the issue is whether our work and toil achieves the goals that we hope. And he says they don’t. He looks at reality, and our lives, and our blood, and our sweat, and our frustration and he says that in the end we add zero value to reality around us. If our thinker lived now, he would reference the computer. Just think about when the computer crashes, and after days of buying new equipment, reinstalling software, reconnecting the network, days full of difficulty, you’ve only arrived where you were before. You have value added nothing.
Now, at this point, we may be tempted to walk away from listening to this guy for this seems to undermine our sense of worth and achievement. However, he isn’t just asserting his point. He has built a case and his case is what follows. Let’s hear him out.
Unchanging and implacable reality
What drives this thinker to his conclusion is the unchanging and implacable reality of life:
Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. 5 The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. 6 The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. 7 All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. (Ecclesiastes 1:4-7)
He is right, isn’t he?
There was once a great civilisation known as the Babylonians. It ruled hundreds of nations and now, apart from some shards of pottery, the most they have to show is an ancient city gate kept in a museum in Britain. The Romans ruled for 400 years and all that is left is covered in scaffolding as we try and preserve that civilisation. And it isn’t just civilisations. Civilisations are made up of civilians whose lives come to an end. ‘We are born to die’. In 2006, there were 62 million deaths in a population of 6,470 million. In other words, about one per cent of the population dies every year. Now, this is not quite right because the death rate is higher in the very young and very old – but just to help us understand the inevitability of death, let’s look at it this way: with a death rate of one per cent, if there are 100 people on your office floor at work then, by the end of the year, one of you will be dead.
This stark fact was hammered home to me. A handful of days before I was writing this talk a friend in the city emailed me. One of her colleagues died over the weekend. And around that same time a city church was grieving the loss of a member of the congregation in his 50s who was married with a young family.
But creation and reality just keep on keeping on. The waves keep rolling in. The winds keep blowing. The rains come and go. Our existence is phantom like. If you contrast the nature and existence of human beings with the larger ongoing reality, what you see is that human beings don’t control reality at all. Our mortal actions are fleeting and unsubstantial compared to the nature of the universe.
Psalm 39:5-11 reads:
You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Each man's life is but a breath. Selah 6 Man is a mere phantom as he goes to and fro: He bustles about, but only in vain; he heaps up wealth, not knowing who will get it. [..] 11 You rebuke and discipline men for their sin; you consume their wealth like a moth-- each man is but a breath. Selah
But humanity is fooled:
All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. (Ecclesiastes 1:8)
All things become wearying. But us human beings, because we here just a short time, and because we are insatiable in our appetites, we are fooled. We can watch the sea roll in again and again. We can drink hot chocolate again and again. We can do almost anything again and again. The very fact that we want those things again and again...means we are fooled. Our insatiable visual, tactile, experiential appetite somehow allows us to fool ourselves into thinking things are new or different this time. But in this we are fooled.
Okay, so we are finite and passing away, but surely we can do something new in our finite time? Our thinker argues that if we think like this we are wrong. We don’t add anything new. We are not able to add one new thing.
Ecclesiastes 1:9-11 reads:
What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. 10 Is there anything of which one can say, "Look! This is something new"? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.
Is this true? What has been is what will be? There is nothing new under the Sun? Surely not. The car was a new thing, wasn’t it? It has revolutionised the world. But has it really? What is the car but just another form of transport? It is a faster, more sophisticated form of the horse and cart. Okay, the car has air conditioning and windows, but in essence it is still a horse and cart. Need more convincing? Answer this: how much horse power does your car have under the hood?
Before cars existed in the city of London they had problems with transport pollution and congestion. There were too many horses and carriages and trailers, such that there was even a public outcry about the volume of horse manure. In New York in 1900, health officials in Rochester calculated that the 15,000 horses in that city produced enough manure in a year to make a pile 24 stories high, covering a bit over half a rugby league field and facilitating the breeding of about 16 billion flies. The solution to the public outcry for ‘the banishment of the horse from American cities’ was the adoption of the ‘horseless carriage’. That is the car.
Wasn’t the computer a new thing? Yes, and no. What is a computer? Just a sophisticated abacus; a powerful abacus for sure, but just an adding machine. Or, it is just another writing machine. And before machines, we had scribes. What is the computer? Just a scribe. But even with computers there is something new, surely? You get the new shiny laptop with its quad core triple duo intel centrino tetra byte whop bop a lam boo. And it runs so fast; it is so beautiful. And then as you load more and more software on (and every six months the software gets bigger and more demanding), again and again , within six months your Ferrari laptop runs like a family sedan. And within a year your Ferrari runs like a Combi. And, then you need a new Ferrari again.
But even if we can’t make something new, surely we can be remembered? Our thinker answers: wrong again.
Sentence 11 reads:
There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.
Surely this can’t be right? Well, who was the wealthiest man in the western world and probably the entire world at the start of the 20th Century? The answer is Andrew Carnegie, a self made industrialist, who lived from 1835 to 1919. But did you remember or know his name? A great man in his time but that is just it. His time has passed and no one remembers his name, except maybe a building named after him. That isn’t remembering him. Even at this point, all that is known is that this man had something to do with a building or road or research at some point, maybe. And in another 100 years who will Andrew Carnegie be compared to Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or... And even then, it is just a name that is remembered. The person themselves is long, long forgotten. And this is the greatest amongst us. The harsh reality is, you and I won’t be remembered. And so what can we do in light of the fact that we have no impact, we have an insatiable appetite that gets us nowhere, we don’t add anything new, and we won’t be remembered?
Despair or . . .
Now, a common response is to retreat. We become grumpy old men and grumpy old women. ‘It’ll never work.’ ‘I’ve seen the same thing again and again.’ ‘Stupid.’ We retreat to cynicism and anger toward the world. Or we hide. We hide in pleasure and its effects. So we get blotto on Friday night not just for the fun of getting drunk but, I think, to keep reality at bay. We have recognised that day after day of working, day after day of eating and sleeping, even day after day of stuffing around starts to seem meaningless. And so we try and keep this reality at bay by reaching for oblivion on Friday nights.
What is the way forward? Is it hedonistic oblivion? Is it cynical retreat? No, it is neither.
There is a long answer to this question, but the first part of the answer and perhaps the most important part is to recognise reality. And the reality is this: we are creatures. The Bible makes this absolutely clear. We are creatures. We are made in the image of God, but we are creatures and not the creator. And so, it is not in our power to alter the fundamental shape of reality, rather we exist in that reality. We can manipulate it but we cannot recreate it. We do not have ultimate control. We are merely creatures. In Queensland, the cane toad is proof of this. We had a problem with a few beetles so we thought we would control our reality and get some cane toads in. That’ll fix the problem...right?
If we understood that we are creatures and subject to the reality in which we lived then this would undermine foolish expectations, this would undermine frustration at life not giving us what we want, this would undermine a self centred view of reality, and this would undermine our fear, and anger and ruthlessness in life. And, if we recognised that we were not just creatures but that we are fast fading creatures then we would be living according to reality. We live but for a moment. We are like a bromeliad flower that blooms for a day or two and is gone. Some of us, the strongest among us, may last a long season of 70 or 80 years but what is that? It is nothing when you consider the thousands and thousands of years that the earth and universe have existed. We are fast-fading flowers. I didn’t shave for a couple of days over the weekend. But on Monday I had to; there was so much grey in my beard that I felt mortal.
God is at work, and he wants us to understand that we are not God. That is why we can’t seem to control reality. That is why we can’t alter the fundamental shape of life. God wants us to see that we are not God. He is. Why does he want us to see that? Because there is only one way to have a friendship with God. And that is to recognise that you are not Him. One God whose will is supreme plus one god who thinks his or her will is supreme equals a whole lot of trouble.
The way forward is to know that we are creatures dependent on God for all things. This is the value added life that God desires. The value adding he wants is that we will recognise that we are creatures, that He is God, and that we might live with him as our God.
Humanity need to live according to reality. The nature of reality is that human beings cannot grasp it and mould it to their own ends. This isn’t to say we have no effect on reality. But rather that reality is not in our control. We do not add value to reality. We live in it. So, we ought to live in response to the reality around us. And fundamental to that response is that we are creatures. There is a creator and he is in control of reality. The value he wants us to add to life is to acknowledge him and thank him as God.
Photo by flickr.com/photos/diogeneselfilosofo/ creative commons