22What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? 23For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.
[Photo of the world’s most precise clock, based on the vibrations of a single aluminum ion, by J. Burrus/NIST, click here for the full article.]
Our daily lives are ruled by the Almighty Clock. We are humbled by its constant ticking and follow it diligently. It tells us when to get up (yells at us if it has to), when to eat, when our favorite program is on TV, and when to sleep. There is a time for everything and as long as we follow it precisely we enjoy the day. Yet what do we do, we sleep in, we waste time in a bored stupor surfing the net, and worse we frustrate ourselves when we're late! Our body becomes tense, our heart rate and breathing speeds up and during this moment of anxiety we have the potential to make rash decisions. But why are we in a hurry in the first place? We become late either through our own actions (hitting the snooze) or through no fault of our own (stuck in traffic). And even when we're late through no fault of our own we continue in our state of anxiety, we blame and punish ourselves for random events outside of our control. This is where the wisdom of Kohelet comes through to help us understand the rhythms of the cosmic dance.
People are most familiar with Chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes than any other part of the book, and, in my personal opinion, is considered the heart of Ecclesiastes. It opens with a statement most people don't take into deep consideration. There is a time for EVERYTHING, this includes both the good and the bad.
Everything has its time and even more shocking God has made EVERYTHING beautiful in its time. Death, war, pain, suffering, all of the negative and painful moments of our existence are beautiful in its own time. What does this mean? Is the text (3:11) really saying we should really embrace the good and the evil equally? Does this also mean that both originate from the same source (i.e. God) or maybe that Good and Evil are more interdependent and intertwined than we believe? Regardless, all things are said to be made beautiful in its own time. Reading the second half of the verse...
Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. Ecclesiastes 3:11 (ESV)
Some may interpret this as describing a Divine plan interweaving the good and bad times in our lives for some greater purpose. But this is not only contradictory to the theme within Ecclesiastes but sounds incredibly disheartening. It's one thing to say that "sh!t happens" and we have no control over the chaos of the cosmos it's another to say that God has us suffer for a reason.
So if we have absolutely no control over what happens to us (well, I take that back, we do have some control), what are we to do? Kohelet weaves three concepts into Ecclesiastes which will help us to enjoy life through even the worst of times.
Learn how to Tell Time. There is a time for everything and if we learn how to tell time we can fully embrace the specific season and then let it go. Yes, sh!t does happen but not always. We may feel trapped and overwhelmed when bad things begin to happen in succession but they don't continue forever, just as the "good ole' days" don't always last forever (and aren't always as good as we remember them). What we must strive to do is to BE angry, happy, sad, and excited during it's time but to let go when that time is up. The letting go is, in my opinion, the hardest part of being human. We yearn for stability in an unstable world, something, anything that may give definition, guidance, or purpose in our lives. We want to control the music, the rhythm, the dance instead of flowing with it.
Vexation of Breath. Koholet likens this foolish clinging to the good times and bad to chasing the wind, ryut ruach, vexation of the breath. It's foolish to think we can hold onto to anything in life so why do we struggle so violently holding our breath? If everything is in constant cycle, constant motion, wouldn't it be easier to relax and breathe in rhythm with the universe? The rough times in our lives won't hurt forever, unless we allow them to, and will eventually fade away into memory as we begin to experience the happier times. Yet we can't fully enjoy the happy days if we're holding onto the pain of the sad, and vice versa. If we let go and stop fearing the inevitable, life will still suck but not as much without the stress and fear we add to it. Bad things WILL happen. Period. So why struggle? I'm not imploring defeatism, nor is Kohelet, but a sense of realism.
Eat, Drink, and be Merry (oh, and a few good friends wouldn't hurt). The first two helps us to understand and deal the flow of the universe, the ups and downs of life, yet they're hollow and bring no comfort whatsoever. Where then do we draw meaning, purpose, and joy?
12I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man. Ecclesiastes 3:12-13 (ESV)
It is painfully simple yet rarely practiced advice. Millions of Americans struggle for a sense of happiness and search for it everywhere but the one place they fail to look, the here and now. You don't need to attain immense wealth, status, or wisdom to grasp that happiness is found within ourselves, it is here already! Good food, drink, work, and a few good friends make up the foundation to a joyous life. Many of us already have these but we fail to realize it. We're all looking outward toward our neighbor (and our neighbor at us) and assume that they have found something that we lack. So we toil and trade our precious time in the Now for time in the Future.
"After I get X,Y,and Z THEN I'll be happy."
So we rush out and we get X,Y, and Z and boy do we enjoy them, for a time. But why couldn't we be happy before we went out seeking? The only barrier preventing us from enjoying the here and now is ourselves, not God, Fate, Chance or your neighbor. No one is out to get you (well, maybe) so kick back take a deep breath, invite a few friends over, and have a party.