discovering the futility of human existence at my high school reunion

discovering the futility of human existence at my high school reunion April 23, 2015

PVHSA little over a year ago, I attended my thirty-fifth high school reunion. Pascack Valley High School class of ’78. Go Indians.

Seeing people you grew up with looking far older than you ever dreamed your parents could get when you were a kid is both sobering and a privilege—not all of my 401 member graduating class got to grow old.

And seeing people from your childhood and formative years connects you with your humanity, your life narrative, in ways few other things can can. Reunions are sacred space.

We gathered in a hotel ballroom. Down the hall in an adjoining ballroom was another high school reunion, a 50th. Someone mused that we should walk down and pretend we belonged—eat their food, drink their wine, act like we know them, and make everyone jealous for looking so much younger.

(Un)Fortunately we all had grown up enough not to pull off awesome pranks like this, but it did get me thinking:

One day in the not too distant future—fifteen years from now—we’ll be that class with a fiftieth reunion, and fifteen years ago, another class celebrated its fiftieth reunion, and they are now on their sixty-fifth–whoever is left.

Human existence is a cycle. An endless cycle. The more things change the more they stay the same.

And that got me thinking of the always-ready-for-a-good time book of Ecclesiastes.

What has been is what will be,
   

            and what has been done is what will be done;
    

            there is nothing new under the sun.

Is there a thing of which it is said,
  

            “See, this is new”?


It has already been;

             in the ages before us. (Eccl 1:9-10)

Ecclesiastes is all business with the whole cycle of life thing. Nothing is really new. It may seem that way, but you’re only fooling yourself.

Everything that is has already been and will be again. I must remember that line for my fortieth.

This lighthearted tone stayed with me the next morning. On the way home I decided to drive through some old neighborhoods and then down my old street to the house where I did most of my growing up.

My parents moved away when in 1998 and have since died. I never had a reason to go back, though I had driven by the house in recent years, whenever I was back in the area, never really having the nerve to stop.

This time, buoyed by the spirit of the class of ’78, I pulled over, got out, and knocked on the front door.

The man of the house answered. I came right out with it: Hi. You don’t know me, but I grew up here and I haven’t stood on these steps in about fifteen years.

He invited me right in. I met his wife and kids, who were somewhere between grade school and high school. They already knew who I was because my sister Angie (’77) had pulled the same stunt about a year earlier.

And it turned out they were the very people who bought the house from my parents—and they remembered them both by name. Nice touch. It felt more like home.

Their T.V. was in the same place as ours was—the room is small and has limited options. The carpet was, mercifully, different from the horrible dark, dark green shag disaster that was either on sale or in vogue when we move in in 1972. The kitchen was hardwood, the current owners having removed the carpeting my Mom (what the h-e-double hockey sticks were you thinking?) thought would work there.

My old tiny bedroom now provided solitude and safe-space for another high school student, forty years my junior. I saw the cubby my dad had built underneath the basement stairs where my dogs–Corky and Sammie–would sleep at night (we called it the “dogout”). Now it was used for storage. My dad’s workbench with its tools had become sort of a game/sewing area.

And the backyard–that great backyard. The huge oak I would climb—split into four trunks ages ago by a lightening strike—had long since died and been removed. I could see in my mind’s eye our above ground pool, but that, too, was long gone, as were the tracks in the grass from endless wiffleball tournaments. The new owner had also put up vinyl siding over the clapboard and seriously spruced up the detached garage.

The house of my youth had been transformed over the last fifteen years—but it was still “that house” I grew up in. A different family was there, with its own struggles and triumphs, its own stories to tell.

But one day not terribly long ago the Enns family moved in. They were the new family, replacing the previous one, with its carpeting, TV, and bedrooms. And one day this family will move on and another will surely take its place.

Families come and go. There’s nothing really new here.

What has been is what will be,
 and what has been done is what will be done;
 there is nothing new under the sun.

And so it goes.

It was time to go now. I may never be back again. Just like the family we replaced in 1972.

Since I wasn’t yet full of harsh reality, I decided to stop at the Dunkin Donuts a mile down the road to grab some breakfast before heading home.

I sat down to unwrap my greasy but oh so good egg bacon cheese croissant and in came a large man, in his early 30s, I’d say, proudly wearing a “River Vale Little League” coach’s, water resistant, nylon, v-neck warm-up jacket.

I played in the River Vale Little League, too, from 1970-73. I was pretty darn good, too. I played on all-star teams, and around the age of twelve I realized I could throw pretty hard. After adding a curve ball I became a legend—or so my memory tells me.

But long before and for long after my 4 brief years under the sun, others played, others threw hard, others were legends.

My coaches also wore self-identifying, territory-marking, testosterone-laced garb, though not the slick stuff they have today. Why, back in my day they had jackets with snaps and collars. But the same idea.

And I’ll bet my own son that this guy in the Dunkin Donuts was a father coaching his son—just like my coaches did. My father, as a German immigrant, never did, as it would have been an colossal disaster, but I also coached my son, from 1995—2004, from the time he was seven until he entered American Legion baseball at seventeen. Ten years. I have a closet full of warm up jackets, hats, and polo shirts. I rarely wear them.

There were coaches long before my coaches, as there will be coaches long after this young father/coach has taken his final turn. I wanted to grab him to tell him to enjoy it and to let him know what was ahead, in the years to come. But most men that age—including me—tend not to think of the cycle of life.

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.

This realization often comes much later, in mid-life, when the frantic pace of our youth has become tiresome, when we finally slow down a bit and take stock.

I’m just another in a long line. I’m not at the front or back. Just in the massive middle. So are you. So is everyone.

We are here for a while, busy ourselves, accomplish things, and then we move on and others continue the cycle.

I also, strangely, felt peace at the thought. I’m wasn’t exactly sure at the time why, but perhaps knowing that things are as they are and that I will not break that cycle leads to a healthy resignation, a release of the fantasy that we can control our universe, our lives.

That’s how I’d put it: my weekend was a tender “letting go” moment.

I have found that letting go is a key component of the Christian life—of any spiritual life—but I was never taught “letting go” in my Christian education, in church, college, or seminary. The sub-current always seemed to be how “special” and privileged we were to be “in,” not like the masses who don’t get it. We have our finger on the pulse of the universe. Therefore, our lives have meaning.

I was taught to think of myself as outside of the cycle.

But we live our lives within the cycle, and they have meaning. Not a meaning handed to us, but a meaning we forge—right here, right now. Not by transcending our humanity but by looking it square in the eye, shedding any notion of being above it all, getting to work, and living.

After all, as Christians believe, God himself entered the human drama, the cycle of life, as yet another man in the long line of men before and since, born of a woman, in ancient Judea, in Galilee, who grew and learned like everyone else.

God valued the cycle enough to be a part of it. So will I.

 

 

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • gingoro

    Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!

    Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity!

    Very different from my life. High school alone was in three different cities/towns on two continents. Elementary school was 9 months at boarding school and 3 months with my parents where ever they were.

    DaveW

  • Pete, this is one of the best things I’ve read in a very long time. Thank you.

    • peteenns

      Thank you, Richard!

  • Really wonderful. Thank you for sharing this.

    On a lighter note, this is also the thematic engine of the “new” Battlestar Galactica series.

  • This is beautiful, thank you.

    A few weeks ago I was going home and long story short I ended up at the yard of the place I used to live for a year with a friend. It was loaded with memories — we were a group of friends, most of them moved away now. I sat down on one of the benches and just started crying. I realized, among other things how much I still missed my friends, and those times.

    Still, after that, I felt better and lighter. It needed to be done. I don’t think I completely let go yet, but hey, it’s a process.

  • NathanShields

    I’m inspired and depressed at the same time. And so it goes…

    • Dave Willis

      You know, that’s how I felt too. More depressed than inspired, really. I’m not sure why. He hasn’t said anything that I don’t often think about. Something about the way he said it just resonated with me in a melancholy way…

  • Gary

    You mention you were “never taught ‘letting go’ in [your] Christian education, in church, college, or seminary.”

    One thing you likely were taught though is that there’s nothing (but the demonic?) to learn of other religious traditions.

    In Hinduism, there’s the concept of ashrama, a notion that life is comprised of stages. The middle of the five stages is grihastha, a stage centered in duties–duties to spouse, duties to children, duties to community, duties to labor. Duties and strivings and attachments–physical, emotional, sexual, material, and identity attachments abound. You mention the physical differences between yourself and the seniors down the hall. You mention baseball.

    The fourth stage of life is considered vanaprastha. In a life well lived, somewhere around 50 you may start to handover some things and maybe even let go of somethings or let go of pursuing things never quite obtainable or possible to sustain a grasp. Focus may shift from security and satisfaction to liberation as its own pursuit.

    We have a bit of Ecclesiastes in our texts. We have a bit of reflection in our Office of Compline. In Christianity, can robustly find what your looking for in the monastic realm. Yet while a certain rare, but orthodox, kind of Christian faith is very much about preparing for death in the hope that death has conquered death by death, honestly much (or most really?) of the Christian faith I see is at a very different place or even on a very different track. On this other Christian track death is to be avoided, Jesus is the substitutionary scapegoat who dies so that I can live forever. In truth, it is a Gospel where I do not follow Him, nor do I desire or be given to live (really *die*) in His way. It’s not only the cycle of life you were taught that you are to think you live outside of. It’s the moment of death too. Much of pop Christianity is an attempt to never make it to the Cross or to bypass the Cross as if Christianity is a well-paved, free toll-road around Gehenna to get to the City.

    There is a “letting go” indeed. But the letting-go that leads to moksha is not necessarily the letting go in the Essence of the Incarnation as your final couple paragraphs seem to center.

    Christianity, at its best, is a union of the letting-go and the here-and-now. But this is only when we pray a Kingdom come, we know it’s the Kingdom with the last enemy [already?] destroyed. “What has been is what will be,
 and what has been done is what will be done.” Christ is died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. There is a faith that wants to know Christ–yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.

    Once one gets a glimpse of a beatific vision (that is, the cruciform one of an orthodox Christology and not some other Platonic or Deistic or other with the barely noticeable opposites), the brahmacharya and grihastha of the wrestling with this-and-that of popular Christianity becomes yet another ballroom down the hall where one really no longer belongs anymore either.

    Now, while, yes there are the vanity of vanities. God’s commands are not dharmic, for everyone born of God lets go of and yet lives in fully incarnationality in the world. This is the victory that has and does and will redeem the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God, only the one who believes that this way of being Human is paradoxically of the same Essence as the Divine.

  • Myron Williams

    This just be is my 50threunion, but I will be in Indonesia working with teachers, principals, and college lecturers. While I will miss being at the reunion, I am thankful I can still travel, still have something to offer others just starting their teaching careers, or looking for new skills. And also along the way I seek to raise the next generation of leader/teachers, because life does go on. Thanks for the reminder. Maybe you too will still be teaching the year of your 50th.

  • Dr. Donny

    And the older you get, the more you think of the past – regrets for paths not taken, long ago mistakes, etc. Planning for the future fades as health and mobility become limited. Life becomes one of living just day to day. Totally depressing if one doesn’t have a hope for the afterlife. Thank you Lord for that hope.

  • epicurus

    I remember as a teenager in the mid/late 1970’s watching “Happy Days” and thinking how the 50’s were sooooo long ago. Yet to my Dad, they would have seemed like just yesterday, like a snap of the fingers.
    And that’s how I feel now when I hear younger people talk about the 80’s and see documentaries on TV about “The 80’s.” To me, they were just the blink of an eye ago, like it was yesterday. But how can that be? I’m not old. Oh wait, yeah, I am.

  • Rick

    “a release of the fantasy that we can control our universe, our lives.”

    Yes, but we can be in relationship with the One who does.

  • Dave Willis

    “…perhaps knowing that things are as they are and that I will not break that cycle leads to a healthy resignation, a release of the fantasy that we can control our universe, our lives.”

    Does this mean you’re a determinist?

  • R Vogel

    Whenever I get in these moods I watch this…

    https://vimeo.com/14803194

  • Andrew Dowling

    Sounds like you need to go and treat yourself to a brand new Ferrari . . . .

  • Derek

    Thanks for sharing, Pete.
    Honest question: Wasn’t Ecclesiastes essentially written from a perspective of life without God, for the most part?

    • Gary

      I don’t know but of most of the non-theists I know, this is their favorite book of the Bible. Perhaps because it has such an unflinching honest about matters of existence. In my experience, it’s the book of the Bible that non-theists like better than Christians. Dale McGowan, author of Atheism For Dummies, for instance writes, “Ecclesiastes is the best book of the Bible by far—such a genuine, honest human cry.”

      The author does seem to reflect not so much on life without God (as superficially discussed by man), but more so life without a sense of fulfillment through duty toward God. And the perspective part is there too. Ecclesiastes has perspectives–anthropology, theology, and sense of self–that is different in its unflinching rawness from most of the rest of the canonical text, especially outside the wisdom tradition.

      I’d suggest this: Ecclesiastes is essentially written from a wisdom tradition’s more developed and nuanced perspective of life [with/without? God?]. In perhaps author’s intentionally layered paradox, this book is meant to be meaningless to those who treat its text simply.

      For the most part, perhaps Qoheleth was writing from a perspective of life without a fool’s conception of God and with a wiser man’s conception of God.

      Perhaps this is related to why non-theists find much in this book. They seek something deeper than what seems to satisfy the masses.

    • Rust Cohle

      Indeed, Paul Haupt argued that the Saducean/Epicurean (neither believed in afterlife) book of Ecclesiastes should not be included in the Bible, since Jesus denounced it:

      Ecclesiastes’ Epicurean Ceterum censeo that nought is good for man but eating, and drinking, and pleasure (8:15, 2:24, 5:18, cf. 3:12) is condemned by Jesus (Luke 12:20) in a section which contains several allusions to the Book of Ecclesiastes (cf. Luke 12:18, and Eccl. 2:4; Luke 12:20b and Eccl 2:18b, and above all, Luke 12:27 = Matt. 6:29 (Solomon in all his glory.)[…]

      Paul Haupt (1905) The Book of Ecclesiastes: A New Metrical Translation (with an introduction and explanatory notes). Baltimore: John Hopkins Press. p.6.
      books.google.com/books/about/The_Book_of_Ecclesiastes.html?id=DYIwAQAAMAAJ

      Yet Haupt’s translation of Ecclesiastes is absolutely brilliant, mainly because he separates to footnotes what he considers to be Pharisaical/Stoic iterpolations added because “Pharisaic authorities may have deemed in necessary to clear Jerusalem of the suspicion of Epicureanism.” (page 3.)

  • Eric Oppenhuizen

    Thanks for sharing this – I literally took a break from writing a message for a funeral this weekend. This is great perspective.

  • ajl

    As I get older I find myself embracing these ideas as well – I often find myself a bit melancholy. But deep down I have a greater peace and internal satisfaction about living my life simply as one of “many in the middle” as you say.

    It is one of the things driving me away from Western Evangelicalism: I am getting sick and tired of all the books about maximizing our potential, being the leader we were meant to be, finding our purpose, having the greatest marriage ever, etc.

    Now I find myself being satisfied in having lived a faithful life. In a strange way I find that the “Tale of the Three Brothers” in the Harry Potter series contains an Ecclesiastes-like wisdom.

  • Chris Bishop

    Nice piece Pete.

    I just wonder how important the concept of memories are here and what the Bible has to say about them. In some ways we are the product of our memories. I too have hankered to go back to the palce I was bought up yet I realise it is not the same as it was then. I cannot recrreate it. I would to prefer remmber it as it was not as it is now. That belongs to someone else.
    At some point i must to a study into what God syas about memories because he remembers us.

  • Nice piece, though I wonder what Qoheleth would have thought of the internet. Or electricity for that matter. I believe there are new things being created (or being harnessed for the first time) all the time and it’s our duty to use the new things to make a better world for the billions of people now existing who could not have existed on a pastoral/agrarian world.

    But then again I’m 30.

  • Kathryn Helmers

    Beautifully said, and an apt commentary on realities that drain some hot air out of the balloon of Evangelical triumphalism.

    For a whole book on the very topic of this blog, RUN DON’T WALK to get Annie Dillard’s marvelous, and marvelously readable, For the Time Being.

    • peteenns

      Thanks, Kathy. But rather than running or walking, couldn’t I just get the book on Amazon?

  • Nikolay

    This was beautifully written. Thank you for such an honest, open post.

  • William Matthew Whayland III

    Sic transit gloria. Except. Except for cranky, irrascable, Rabbi Saul: “. . .youse guys know that in da Lord your labour cannot be lost.” (NEB, my update) Sometimes in the trenches, in the mundane, we do something outside the cycle that will have value into the next age. It isn’t all dust in the wind.

  • PNG

    I helped find people for my 45 yr reunion last summer, since I’ve moved back to the city I grew up in. It was interesting to see how clustered we still are. The vast majority are still in the same state and most still in the same metro area. Only a few scattered to the ends of the earth.

    One nice thing about being back near home (and having Facebook) is encountering people I haven’t seen for 30-40 years. In general they have turned out amazingly well. People that I had little hope for when I saw them last have cleaned up nicely, often by finding Jesus (or having known Him back then despite me having no clue as my nervous self-preoccupied young self.) God really does rescue people, sometimes in quite dramatic fashion. Some of them remember me saying something useful to them, although I can almost never remember saying it.

    Getting to be 63 has it’s rewards (even with the 35 extra pounds I can’t rid of, the hardness of hearing and all the pills to take) and one of the better ones is seeing many friends living well and wisely.

  • Tom Schuessler

    There is a holiness to this cycle. As Rabbi Sacks says, don’t pray for this or that bad thing to go away or this or that good thing to happen. Just be grateful to the Lord for being alive.