Ecclesiastes is my favorite book of the Hebrew Bible. “Useless, useless, says the preacher, everything is vanity.” It is astonishing how one can achieve and then lose. Kipling’s poem “if” comes to mind here. Can a person really cope with emptiness?
The Despair of Useless Living
Thoreau claims, “all (people) live lives of quiet desperation.” Every generation believes it discovers this idea. But Ecclesiastes put it into words 2600 years ago. “And nothing is new under the sun.” People often think existential despair derives from knowing life is meaningless. I disagree. Existential despair results from fearing life is meaningless.
There are three basic approaches to living a meaningless life. The first is living as though one’s actions have no effect on anyone else. Those people who try this often settle into a self-loathing despair. “What I do does not matter and therefore does no good.”
The second approach to useless living is to try to make one’s life mean something great. It is a running joke for middle aged people to wish they had all of the potential back. Some people were told in their younger years, “you can do anything you want to do” or “you have such potential.” These people wander at their apparent failure to live up to the presumed potential. It is the desperate desire to achieve. Such a person forgets that Mahatma Gandhi never received a Nobel Peace Prize.
The Third Approach
The third approach to useless living does not end in despair. I believe this is the point of Ecclesiastes. “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.” (9:10) “This could be the T-shirt slogan,” one professor said to me.
Goal oriented people do not find these words encouraging. Such people could say, “there’s no point in trying.” And that is exactly the point. It takes a sense of spiritual maturity to do it. How we think about ourselves is at issue.
Mark tells how Jesus’ disciples fell into arguing over who would be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Assuming Jesus is greatest, which one of us is next? Why does it matter? If one cannot be the greatest, why should there be any pecking order? They wanted a reward for their efforts.
Judas Was Not Useless
Judas is the one who found his reward. He did not have it within the Twelve. So he looked somewhere else for his recognition. He decided to despair. “I have betrayed an innocent man,” he claims wishing to take back what he had done. He felt the self-loathing despair and acted upon it.
Ecclesiastes claims there is no reward for our efforts after death. But there is happiness in our efforts while we are alive. Christian teachers argue there is no recognition of worldly achievements in the afterlife. But if we are reward oriented either by achievement or pleasure, we fail to understand this truth.
Being content is the purpose of life. Being dissatisfied is the motivating factor of life. And so we work to satisfy those needs. Then we enjoy those needs being fulfilled. We realize that our achievement is not our own. Then we help other people find the contentment for the day’s work. It is how being useless by other standards is happiness now. As St. Paul says, “But we urge you beloved, to do so more and more, to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your own hands, as we directed you.” (1 Thessalonians 4:10b-11)