A rather candid article, 2016 Is Not Killing People, got me thinking today. The article picked up on the various social media comments ruing the celebrities we have lost in 2016, looking forward to 2017, as if 2017 will be any better. Being equally as candid as the article – It won’t be.
The article focuses on the notorious drug use of some iconic celebrities that we lost in 2016. Prince. George Michael. Princess Leia (I mean Carrie Fisher). They all had issues with drug addiction that likely played a key role in their relatively early deaths.
I say relatively early death because just one hundred years ago, and for hundreds of centuries before that, people didn’t live as long, on average, as we do today. Death has always, faithfully done its job. Our experience with death may not be what it was in years gone by, but the inevitably of death has never been more (or less) present.
We not only live longer, but we have more distractions from the stark realities of life than ever before. Drugs, ironically, are among those ubiquitous distractions that characterize our modern lives, the same drugs that led to the early demise of many notable celebrities in 2016.
Not all distractions shorten our lives, of course. Some of them, like fitness, running and similar crazes are likely to prolong our lives. We might squeeze another 10, 20 or more years out of our lives. Maybe, if we have the right distractions, we might live to be 100. Maybe even slightly older.
Life is precious of course. We should treasure the time we have. But what of it when our time is done?
The writer of Ecclesiastes put it candidly this way:
“Laughter,” I said, “is madness. And what does pleasure accomplish?” I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly—my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was good for people to do under the heavens during the few days of their lives.
I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. 7 I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired male and female singers, and a harem as well—the delights of a man’s heart. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.
At the end of day, after all the many distractions and attempts to find meaning, the writer lamented:
I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my labor,
and this was the reward for all my toil.
Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun.
While we have more distractions from the reality of death than ever before, we are, at the same time, reminded of it more than ever. News travels fast and far. We know (of) more people than ever before, largely because of those same distractions, like movies, plays, television, radio, professional sports, news outlets, social media and the Internet itself.
We grew up with celebrities, and we take feel their deaths like family members. It hurts when we lose someone.
But there is a bigger picture, one that we tend to want to avoid. There is the issue of our own mortality. There is the issue of the meaning (or meaninglessness) of life.
Our distractions take us away from these things that we would rather not face, but to our detriment.
The writer of Ecclesiastes, who we believe to be Solomon, didn’t turn from the stark realities of life. He faced them head on. Eating, drinking and being merry were not distractions for him, but experiments in existential living – being conscious of the meaning (or meaninglessness) of life while he was experimenting.
I think we avoid these things because we are afraid of what we will find (or not find). We are afraid that, underneath the façade, there really is nothing – no meaning, nothing to really live for.
Some, like the writer of Ecclesiastes, determine that whatever lies at the center of life, whatever foundation life stands on, we should seek it out. Socrates famously said that “an unexamined life is not worth living”. Unlike animals, we are capable of self-examination and reflection, though many of choose not “to go there”.
To be sure, the distractions of drugs, alcohol, entertainment and other frivolity are not the only ways we dodge the inevitable, ultimate issues of life. We can do the same thing by gravitating toward “clear answers, simple directions, precise instructions (whatever) [in order to] set aside examination and merely comply, or unthinkingly follow custom and practice….”
According to Socrates, we are not fully human if we fail to use our ability to reflect on life, meaning, beauty, etc. Having the capacity to be reflective is what sets us apart from the animal kingdom, and not to engage in the self-examination that sets us apart is to abdicate the great difference between us and animals.
en so, the writer of Ecclesiastes, in the process of examination, wonders whether there is any difference after all.
“As for humans, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?”
We have to wonder at some point whether the pursuit of wisdom, the engagement in the examined life, is nothing but chasing after the wind in the end. Such a man dies and returns to dust just as the man who lives a frivolous life. so, what difference does it make?
“What a heavy burden God has laid on the human race!”
“If there be such a God”, one might whisper under her breath.
Maybe the proof is in the pudding. Maybe the very fact that people are not content with themselves, their lives and the inevitability of death points to a reality that we can only presently hope exists. Maybe our appreciation and longing for meaning, for beauty and for love is proof that there is something else.
If there wasn’t, why would we long for that which doesn’t exist?
In the midst of Ecclesiastes, one of the most candid assessments of the human life and condition one can find anywhere, the writer observes that “God set eternity in the human heart”. So what does that mean?
I think that life is, indeed, meaningless, if this is all there is. But, it’s not. We should enjoy this life because God has given us what we have, but this isn’t all there is.
The instruction at the end of all the self-examination in Ecclesiastes is to enjoy what God has given you, whatever it is, and to fear (respect, acknowledge) God. If there is anything else, and I believe there is, the source will be God.
We sense that there is more. We should trust that sense. In doing so, we can stop wishing we had what we don’t presently have, and we can learn to enjoy what we have. The “eternity in our hearts” assures us that what we sense and long for will be fulfilled, if not in this life, then in the next.
If you continue to wonder whether this is all there is, consider the story of a Harvard educated neurosurgeon:
 Ecclesiastes 2:1-9
 Ecclesiastes 2:10-11
 Ecclesiastes 3:18-21
 Ecclesiastes 1:17
 Ecclesiastes 1:13
 Ecclesiastes 3:11
 Ecclesiastes 8:11 (“So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.”)