Vanity of Vanities

I once went to an interfaith event where a rabbi briefly discussed an excerpt from Ecclesiastes:

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

The answer, I suspect, is already here. After all, “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.”

Concerns and possibilities.

At first I hear honking horns

It’s a parade of children waving

This cheering fills me.

Hopeful is how I feel.

I go inside

Then I think about the ones

Who rely on food at school.

They go and pick up their meals.

Now we need volunteers to help.

This place of enlightenment is also a food bank

It has been for some time.

They are  getting worried.

So am I .

Something doesn’t seem right.

What happens when the masses grow hungry,

And no one volunteers to feed them?

When we grow weary of this hibernation,

What happens then?

Thomas Jefferson once said, “if people let the government decide what foods they eat and what medicines they take, their bodies will soon be in as a sorry state as the souls who live under tyranny.”

*

This pandemic is no fluke.

It is a magnifying glass

On a wound that’s been around since before Jefferson. 

I write because I agree with his stance that, “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance”.

He was a founding father, ahead of his time in all ways political, economical, agricultural. 

I respect his work, despite the fact that he owned slaves and still dared to say, 

”Equal rights for all, special privileges for none.”

Can we leave room for the possibility that even a hypocrite can sometimes be right?

Maybe even the likes of Jefferson might have been unintentionally contributing to the problem that plagues us to this day. 

What a privilege it must be to have flaws and make policies that shape our country.

*

I recognize that even good leaders are deeply flawed. 

I see it easily in the ones I choose, and not as well in the ones I did not.

I still think that Jefferson had insights the average person didn’t, even though he was your average hypocrite.

*

I heard a gunshot yesterday 

While in quarantine.

It was 6am

Somewhere in my neighborhood

Close enough to rattle my window

And shake my soul.

Do I call?

“A random gunshot?”, they would sneer.

“From where?”

I would ask, “What good reason does one have to shoot

So early in the morning?

In a neighborhood like mine?

Something doesn’t seem right.”

But who would I call and what would I say? I dare not ask the question to strangers who are already taxed with their essentialness.

It’s a random threat

And only a possible death

“From which direction?” they would ask.

And since I do not know

I do not call.

Even though they might be bleeding out,

Alone and hopeless-

It is not my job to save the ones I cannot see.

But more than that, I do not know what to say

Or how to know

Nor whom to call without seeming foolish.

I don’t want to seem foolish.

So quietly I pray and write this.

Maybe this is foolish.

*

I use my money to stimulate by consumption.

The irony is not lost on me

The double meaning of consumption.

I fear this is what caused all our problems in the first place.

A trillion dollars

Trillion with a T

In the form of tiny drops into our buckets

To save our country without a system

No web to help those working

Essentially 

Hourly

Many with no pension or healthcare 

Dying

For $15 an hour

I remember Jefferson once said, 

“If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issuance of their currency, first by inflation and then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around them will deprive the people of all their property until their children wake up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered.”

*

Then I look and see

Others storming capitols with guns in hand,

And flags, 

Some representing a time long ago, not today

They demand liberation

In the face of medicine

And science

After all, Jefferson, the man I think has some reason and foresight- whose face is on a bill-once said:

“What country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms.”

They want to stimulate

They want to consume

They want liberation by returning to the America their grandparents knew

I fear it is already gone

What a privilege it must be to have flaws and still share an opinion.

*

The irony is not lost of me when they say, 

“What right do you have to police me?”

But they then police everyone else in their words and deeds.

We understand they have a right to be so patriotically demanding.

But then I think of all those peaceful protestors

Vying for legal policy change, kneeling, speaking, voting, marching-

Shot in their tracks for daring to question a broken system

That breaks them.

They looked different.

This seems to be the main concern. 

These people look different too. 

They’re all threatening the status quo,

In the ways that they’re allowed, that is. 

*

I cannot believe what I witness, even on the news.

What can I trust?

But then, when I want to turn it all off, I think of Jefferson when he said, 

“When the speech condemns a free press, you are hearing the words of a tyrant.”

Wait. 

Did he say that?

No, actually he said, 

“Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.”

The first one seems like he said it though, doesn’t it?

*

Let’s promise to always critique a free press that is sponsored by someone selling something.

And remember we don’t have to buy it.

*

We don’t have to buy it.

*

I must find a way to trust 

Without consuming.

I understand.

*

Funny what demands we accept.

Closures without closure. 

No comprehensive plan at first, beyond a week or two.

Funny what is not questioned:

A broken system too expensive to adjust,

Authorities,

Lack of health care,

and $1200 a piece to “help”.

Funny what is questioned:

Convenience, security, economy over health.

Priorities, I suppose. 

*

Jefferson’s warning echoes in my ears,

“Yes, we did produce a near-perfect republic. But will they keep it? Or will they, in the enjoyment of plenty, lose the memory of freedom? Material abundance without character is the path of destruction.”

Today I pray we leave room for possibilities,

That near-perfect can still be better.

For memory, character, and discernment

in all.