And I guess it makes sense that it would, at that age. High School is a time where you feel like you better be ready to be launched into adulthood with all its responsibilities, and yet, you really don’t know enough yet for maturity, so there is an existential crisis just brewing. And as I read: “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south, and goes round to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow.” It felt as though I could release the breath that I had been holding in my soul worrying about the future. It felt as though I could live in the moment and trust the entire universe. Thinking and worrying about something I did not know about, which was most likely vanity, was shared with me as being un-spiritual.
And it really is, un-spiritual. The Preacher was right, so much of what we humans do, we do to make ourselves feel better about ourselves, and that is a form of vanity. We may need to do those things to get to the place where we can love and accept ourselves as we are, just as the preacher did, but in the end, it is vanity. Don’t forget – he listed all these things as things he tried! He speaks of “The Futility of Seeking Wisdom,” “The Futility of Self-Indulgence,” “The Frustration of Desires” . . . He speaks as one who knows because he has tried them all and in his search for the truth of life, he tries it all and comes to discover that: “This also is vanity and a chasing after (or feeding on) wind.” And we may carry a little too much stigma to the thought of vanity. To me, vanity is just a distraction and a little shy of narcissism, but often, as soon as we realize our vanity, it is as if it slips away (if we let it) and not hold tighter to the vanity out of shame and denial.
Most people know Ecclesiastes because of its “Everything Has Its Time” passage:
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.
The Preacher, in speaking of the vanities, encourages us, in this text, to experience all of life in the right time and place. We lose this in life, sometimes, out of our fears. We try to be stoic when we should just let ourselves cry, or we don’t dance or laugh enough – this text is designed to help us focus on knowing where we are in our lives RIGHT NOW and to allow ourselves to be fully in that place. This text is often read at funerals, I guess because people need to be reminded that death is a part of life, and mourning is OK. How we ever got it in our minds that mourning was not OK, I will never know, perhaps we hate seeing our loved ones in pain because of some loss that can never be made better. Mourning is hard. And yet, we are also told in the same phrase that dancing is OK, too, even while mourning . . . there is a time for it all, and it is only truly vanity if you are doing the right thing at the wrong time. Like speaking when we should be silent, or vice versa. There is a right time, and we are called to seek God in that moment, and not to fill in the space with vanity.
So, all these vanities – all these things we shouldn’t do – we are given the relief from the confusion by being FINALLY given a direction to aim for: “I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. I know that whatever God does endures for ever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by . . . This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot.”
It is OK to be happy and enjoy ourselves. I cannot imagine being fully happy if there is some suffering going on and I can relieve it. This happiness is a happy void of vanity – void of self absorption – void of guilt or shame. The Preacher focuses so much on vanity as a warning, and when he has stripped away all those things we can lay our ego on – then he says – there he says – that we can experience joy. Being in the moment – accepting the truth of life in the right time, and living it fully, this can bring joy.