Then the recession hit. The business folded. They lost the lake house. They lost the home. They gave up the second car. They moved into a small apartment. Money is tight.
But the family is good. The kids – now out in the world, in college and first jobs – are still beautiful. My friend has had a few fits and starts in the job market; so far nothing’s worked out.
That’s left him time to cultivate life. In a few weeks, he plans to run a half-marathon with his oldest daughter. On weekends, he and his wife take walks in the state park. He checks in on his mother-in-law.
They’re not rich, but they still have a rich life.
I’ve been thinking of my friend the past few weeks since reading the biblical book of Ecclesiastes for a class I’m taking at Earlham School of Religion. Its message of adjusting and accepting seems to speak to what my friend, and the 15 million others in this country displaced by the recession, are going through.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
A time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
A time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to seek, and a time to lose;
A time to keep, and a time to throw away;
A time to tear, and a time to sew;
A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate;
A time for war, and a time for peace.
Biblical scholars say Ecclesiastes was written in a time much like the present. The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB) says the period after the Israelites returned from exile, about 2,500 years ago, saw “tremendous economic activity.” Money became prized, “a commodity desired for its own sake.” It was a time of opportunity; even the poor “could become wealthy.”
But with that came economic volatility and widespread insecurity. Some became wealthy, while others lost out – raising questions of why and how this was happening. Into this gap, the NOAB says, the author of Ecclesiastes – the title translates to “Gatherer” or “Acquirer” – offered an explanation of a world, that was “contradictory, if not altogether absurd,” and of human attempts to control life. (The image at left is by the artist Gustave Dore.)
The world, says Ecclesiastes, is larger than our understanding. Sometimes our efforts pay off. But other times it is not “the season,” and there is no easy explanation. Trying to explain it, says Ecclesiastes, in what becomes a recurring theme, is “vanity and chasing after wind.” (Ecc 2:11).
Instead, Ecclesiastes extols accepting and appreciating the gifts that life gives. That can mean simple pleasures – savoring “your bread with enjoyment and…your wine with a merry heart” (9:7). Appreciating the light of the day; “light is sweet, and it is pleasant…to see the sun” (11:7). Being there for loved ones; “enjoy life with the wife whom you love” (9:9). Not getting caught up in possessions (“eyes are never satisfied with riches,” 4:7) or worry (“banish anxiety,” 11:10).
It must have seemed like a radical message in its day. The dominant message of the Old Testament is to strive. Seek the promise land. Be fruitful and multiply. Do good. Hard work produces results. “Honor the Lord with your substance, and…your barns will be filled with plenty,” as Proverbs 3:9-10 says.
Ecclesiastes is not exactly arguing against striving. One of the most-quoted passages in the book (and the motto of my daughter’s high school) encourages that “whatever your hand finds to do, do with thy might” (Ecc 9:10). We should “take pleasure” in our toil (3:13), “enjoy” our work (3:22), and “follow the inclinations” of our heart (11:9).
But it is saying to check your motivation. Don’t do something for a the result you hope it will bring. As another famous passage says, “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all” (Ecc 9:11). Or, as a 12-step friend says, we’re not in the outcomes business. (Ecclesiastes resonates with many friends in 12-step programs.)
Some people see Ecclesiastes as the odd-book-out in the Bible – too gloomy and world-weary. But, reading it, then rereading it, these past few weeks, I think it’s well-rooted in the spirituality of the Old Testament. Its message that we humans are not as in-control as we’d like to think is like the lesson of the
Better, when we’re disappointed, to step back, reflect, be humble. Remember, says Ecclesiastes, that it’s God’s work that “endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it.” Sometimes what we’re supposed to do just to “stand in awe” (Ecc 3:11-14).
That may be hard in times like this. But I think it would be reassuring for my friend to know that someone in a time like this 2,500 years ago struggled with questions he’s struggling with now, and found hard-earned wisdom.