I once went to an interfaith event where a rabbi briefly discussed an excerpt from Ecclesiastes:
2 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. 3 What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?
Sometimes when I read this above verse from Ecclesiastes or related writings, I feel frustration at the lot of human existence and the futility of it all. I especially feel this way when look at the state of America and how the powerful and weak respond to challenges.
Also, the fragility of life has been on my mind frequently. A few young friends of mine have recently passed in very tragic ways. Another friend in his 30s has a very serious medical condition that for the moment has left him debilitated. All of these people have young families. In these past few weeks, I have once knowingly and once unknowingly worked with teenagers who determined the world would be better without them here. It’s these occurences that remind me of this scripture.
In English the word vanity has an extremely selfish implication. The rabbi explained that “vanity”, commonly used in English translations, is not the best word choice to interpret the passage. It’s true. “Vanity” does not help me see the wisdom buried in this verse. The rabbi went on that a better translation would be the word vapor or breath. He asked the group to think about breathing on a mirror- how the breath is there, then vanishes. He said that’s more the original intention.
Vapor is there and in a flash, is gone- kind of like life is. When I replace the word “vanity” to “vapor” in this excerpt, I see and feel something different. One word changes the whole meaning for me.
Somehow my mind opens up with this new word. I am reminded of an October a few years ago when my grandfather celebrated his 94th birthday. At nearly midnight that same day, a baby boy was also born into my family. One lived through The Great Depression and one will likely hold multiple jobs that don’t even exist yet.
Here we have two beings at total different phases of the life cycle, but both amazingly magnificent. Totally different, but they both began the same way. And though taboo to mention, they will both end, too.
Every day I get up and essentially do the same things- I eat, I bathe, often I laugh, sometimes I cry. I breathe in, then out. I sleep. I live a lifetime in a day. I do everything to get to a certain point, yet still seem to always stay in the same place. I try my best and am still my imperfect self. Every day. It’s miraculous.
I breathe in. I breathe out.
I am here now and then I won’t be.
It’s worth noting that Ecclesiastes continues:
9 What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. 10 Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has been already in the ages before us. 11 There is no remembrance of former things…
It is tempting to read this and say everything we do is futile and ultimately selfish. But I think that interpretation would be in vain. There are some new things, after all. I think about medical progress and how we can successfully operate on the brain, a luxury millions of prior generations did not have. But still, those same millions have helped us get to where we are today.
But maybe that’s not what this scripture is about. Maybe this verse is how each person must live their unique life cycle. With that comes the good and bad, joy and heartache, gain and loss, sickness and health. These ebbs and flows are our life’s cycle. Collectively, yes, humankind should do things differently and learn from our history as those who practice medicine try to do. It seems as a global group, we are unable to learn social mistakes that have occurred throughout history.
Perhaps the reason why progress is so slow is that individuals are all indpendently doing the best we can to live out our own life’s cycle. Maybe that indivudality is part of our problem. Or maybe it’s just how we humans intrinsically are and that’s the point Ecclesiastes.
Humans are naturally inclined to vanity- we tend to be excessively prideful in our own achievements and appearance, which can make the quality of our being seem worthless or futile. Though it’s an unhealthy outlook, humans seem naturally inclined to this approach. Maybe this is why vanity was used in the English translation- not as a slam to mankind- just an utterance of truth. We are inclined to vanity.
It’s interesting the things we accept, support, and celebrate. It’s also interesting to note the things which we do not celebrate. We don’t expect infants to know how to walk when they’re born even though millions have come before them.
Perhaps life wouldn’t seem so futile if we celebrated more milestones when those we love achieve them.
We celebrate milestones along the way of our babies, like a first bath or a first food because it is the baby’s first, not because they will continue these things for the rest of their lives.
For example, though I know all the stages of grief, I must live them out each time tragedy strikes, no matter how many times I lose someone dear.
Why don’t we celebrate not just when one votes, but when one actually reads the voter handbook and civilly discusses controversial policies with neighbors and family?
Or when a friend writes her first chapter.
When a neighbor takes the class.
When a colleague starts a business.
Wouldn’t it be great if we supported couples- not just at their wedding when they are in health, but also later when they are in sickness?
What would it look like if we all celebrated the miracle of our breath-ins and outs- like my Yoga practicing friends do?
To breathe in and out- what a miracle!
What would it look like if our society celebrated the food and sharing meals every day, instead of viewing our essential nourishment as a hassle to be tackled?
What would it look like if we had a community where everyone had a safe place to share their gifts and vulnerabilities so that we could indeed find peace on earth?
What would it take to live this way?
Perhaps the only way this is possible is to imagine the person you like the least- the person who causes the most problems, is the most irritating, and spend quality time with them until you can find something endearing about them.
Perhaps that person is you.
Perhaps that is the start of peace.
Perhaps it’s impossible, or perhaps it’s simple.