Some Pretty Good Advice from Ecclesiastes for Valentine’s–and Every Other–Day

I just wished a faculty colleague Happy Valentine’s Day and told him, as I put it, “I’m writing exams, but at least I’m doing it across the kitchen table from the woman I hold dear.” That made me think about living in the moment. About living into the moment.

Yesterday, I taught on Wisdom Literature. Proverbs. Ecclesiastes. Job. Song of Songs. We talked about how the Teacher (the main figure in Ecclesiastes) tears apart cheap, simple, and ultimately unsustainable formulas. “A stitch in time saves nine.” “The early bird catches the worm.” “Raise a child in the way it should go, and when it is old, it will not depart from it.”

The Teacher tears apart (in chapters two through three of Ecclesiastes) one proverb in particular: “It’s better to be wise than foolish.” “Nonsense!” he bellows, belches, and bristles.

The wise suffer the same fate as fools. We all die.

The wise have as much pain as fools. We all hurt.

The wise have to leave—surrender—their wisdom to people who may not cherish it, people who may distort and disregard it.

What to do if there are no guarantees in life?

The Teacher says, “Enjoy the work of your hands” (2:24). So I told my students, “Don’t just work for what’s coming up! Work for now. Find a way to enjoy your work for what you are learning—not just for what it will bring you in the future.” This is pretty important advice, since their big exam comes up on Tuesday, and I want them to find a way to live into their weekend of learning, memorizing, reflecting—not just as a means to an end but as something worthwhile in its own right.

The Teacher also tenders this advice: “Love the wife of your youth” (9:9). “Love the husband of your youth.” “Love the partner of your youth.” The Teacher is clearly instructing young men, but his advice is universal.

His simple appeal applies to all of us, even those of us in the throes of middle age. Here’s the gist of it:

Love your work. Writing an exam isn’t a thrill ride for me. But it is an opportunity to challenge young students, to instill, if not a love of learning, at least an appreciation for all that they have learned in the last six weeks.

Love your wife or husband or partner. I’ve been at this marriage thing for thirty-one years. In fact, thirty-three years ago, on a Valentine’s Day in 1981, Priscilla and I had our first date. Chicken cacciatore at my apartment, an evening at a funky joint called Somethyme with a local folk singer, and impromptu dancing on an empty dance floor at a down-in-the-mouth Ramada Inn next to a Ford dealership in downtown Durham, North Carolina.

That rundown Ramada Inn is where she first slipped her hand along the back of my neck—and I was smitten. I am still. I love the wife of my youth, who has now become the wife of my middle age. She’s sitting across the kitchen table, with a bowl of fruit, blocks of cheese (we just broke for tea), and student papers dividing us—while memories, old hurts and haunts, past thrills and surprises, nearly forgettable daily episodes too, unite us.

The formulas don’t work. Not always, anyway. I’ve stitched slowly and still screwed up. I’ve worked hard and still missed more than one worm. I’ve raised kids knowing full well they’d go their own ways.

But I still have the wherewithal to tackle tasks at hand, to linger in the present, even more so as the future shrinks. I still feel the wonder of loving the wife of my youth, even more so as youth slips away. It is, exams and study guides notwithstanding, a happy Valentine’s Day. The Teacher, I think, would be pleased.

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