The meaning of life #2
In Faithseekers recently we have been reading the book of Ecclesiastes. It is quite different to virtually any other book of the Bible.
We do not know very much about the author of Ecclesiastes. Because he describes himself as a descendent of King David and a ruler in Jerusalem, tradition attributes the book to King Solomon, the wisest man in the Bible. However, the language appears to come from a much later period, and modern scholars think the book was written 450 and 180BC. His name, Ecclesiastes, (in Hebrew, Kohelet) is probably more like a title. It means something like “the one who convenes the assembly”. The author seems to have been a teacher, and for all its pessimism the book takes the tone of someone who wants to pass on his wisdom to the young.
To help us understand Ecclesiastes, and to help our search for meaning, we also looked at extracts from two other books. The first was “When All You've Ever Wanted Isn't Enough” by American Rabbi Harold Kushner. Harold Kushner's book uses Ecclesiastes as a guide to explore where we find meaning in our lives. The second was “Man's Search for Meaning” by Victor Frankl, a Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at the University of Vienna. During World War II he spent three years in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. This book was written in 1946 and record his experiences in the camps, alongside his reflections on the need for our lives to have meaning and where people find meaning, even in the most difficult of circumstances.
The author of Ecclesiastes is a skeptical man, cynical even, in his later years, desperately afraid of dying and of being forgotten. He wants to know that his life has had some meaning. However, his experiences and observations suggest that all his efforts to give life meaning have been futile. He has worked hard, become wealthy, famous, and learned. As a young man he decided to pursue happiness through wine, and good times. Later in life he became more religious and the book of Ecclesiastes includes some advice on prayer and worship. But, he concludes, none of this makes any difference. Whether you are rich or poor, hard working or lazy, wise or foolish, everyone dies in the end. It is all as meaningless as trying to chase after the wind.
And riches, hard work and wisdom have their own particular pitfalls. No-one ever has enough money, so it will never satisfy you. You may become sick or infirm, unable to enjoy your fortune. And you can't take riches with you - you may leave the fruits of your hard work to foolish and ungrateful children who will squander all your efforts. And with more learning & wisdom, you will understand more of the world's problems but remain powerless to fix them – when you seek redress for the poor or oppressed you will just find yourself tied up in bureaucracy and corruption. Life is simply short and unfair. So really what is the point of it all?
However, despite all this, Ecclesiastes does not give up on finding some meaning. He is not a nihilist.
Ecclesiastes does not come up with a grand conclusion or a single big answer to the 'meaning of life'. There is no 42 in this book! In fact, Harold Kushner suggests that the author of Ecclesiastes spent many years searching for the Big Answer to the Big Question only to realise this is like trying to eat one Big Meal so that you will never be hungry again. There is no Answer - but there are answers.
Ecclesiastes recognises that there are many aspects of life which are unfair. Life is often hard and suffering is unavoidable. However, through the book, Ecclesiastes does highlight themes which he finds do provide some meaning. Nothing will save us from death. Nevertheless, some choices ARE better than others. Wisdom IS better than foolishness. Working hard IS better than being lazy. And God intends us to enjoy his gifts - meaningful work, food, drink, friendship and marriage - so meaning can be found in simply taking one day at a time, enjoying the pleasures and living up to the challenges presented each day.
Chapter 9 verses 7-9 seem to sum this up:
“Go eat your bread in gladness and drink your wine in joy, for your action was long ago approved by God. Let your clothes always be freshly washed and your head never lack ointment. Enjoy happiness with a woman you love all the fleeting days of your life that have been granted you under the sun. Whatever it is in your power to do, do with all your might. For there is no doing, no learning, no wisdom in the grave where you are going.”
Harold Kushner puts it like this:
“Instead of brooding over the fact that nothing lasts... learn to find meaning and purpose in the transitory, in the joys that fade. Learn to savour the moment... because it is only a moment and will not last.”
In his book, Man's Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl finds some of the same sources of meaning even in a place as bleak and soul-less as Auschwitz.
He often thinks of his wife, which keeps him going. In one place he writes, “I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.” Friendships and relationships are central to living with meaning.
He talks of the beauty of nature. A beautiful sunset or glimpse of a landscape could give hope, as it reminded the prisoners of how beautiful life could be. And the importance of art – songs, jokes, poems, satire – in keeping prisoners going. Beauty and art do nourish our souls.
Victor Frankl also talks about the importance of not giving up hope, of keeping going, and finding meaning even in the sufferings and most difficult times in life. He says:
“An active life serves the purpose of giving man the opportunity to realise values in creative work, while a passive life of enjoyment affords him the opportunity to obtain fulfilment in experiencing beauty, art, or nature. But there is also purpose in that life which is almost barren of both creation and enjoyment. …. The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life.” Victor Frankl tells the story of a young woman in the camp who was sick and knew she would die in the next few days. Despite this she was cheerful. She said she was grateful that fate had hit her so hard, as in her former life she was spoilt and did not take her spiritual growth seriously.
In the closing lines, Ecclesiastes concludes there is a morality inherent to our life on earth. “Fear God and obey his commandments.... for God will judge us for everything we do, including every hidden thing, good or bad.”
Harold Kushner says, “God is not the answer because he will intervene to reward the righteous and punish the wicked, but because he has made the human soul in such a way that only a life of goodness and honesty leaves us feeling spiritually healthy and human.” And later he says, “Some religions teach that God sees us so clearly that he knows all our shameful thoughts and nasty secrets. I prefer to believe that God sees us so clearly that he knows better than anyone else our wounds and sorrows, the scars on our hearts from having wanted to do more and do better and being told by the world that we never would.”
Victor Frankl says we need to stop asking about the meaning of life and start thinking of ourselves as being questioned by life. And our answer must consist of right action and right conduct in the face of every situation we find ourselves in. All situations provide opportunities to grow spiritually, and sometimes the most difficult situations provide the greatest opportunity for our growth.