I confess, I am not much of a reader of the Bible, but I have found words of wisdom that help me make sense of my world on many occasions within its pages. This week the words of Ecclesiastes have been registering. I first remember hearing these words originally put to music by Pete Seeger, when The Byrds sang “Turn, turn, turn”. I didn’t know then they came from Ecclesiastes.
As I have watched our political process unfold over the past few weeks, and experienced the pain and suffering that continues to impact our lives on a daily basis, I was struck by how familiar these experiences would have been to the author of Ecclesiastes who is believed to have written it around the 10th century BC. (BC here means “before Christ” not “Before COVID”). There are but 12 Chapters in this book, and each has pearls of wisdom that are helpful reminders to me right now.
What is it about the human experience that we continue to value achievement and acquisition of goods and things over investing in and cultivating kindness and tolerance? The author of Ecclesiastes notes that it is all “vanity and vexation of spirit”, and that it will all pass away. He (or she) acknowledges the existence of wickedness and iniquity, oppression and abuse of power, but also explores the effects of wise actions, speech and adherence to the commandments (in this case, 10 of them).
There is, in this book, a rather exhausting experience of going through a process of, “on the one hand . . . and on the other . . .” without coming to a clear conclusion. I suspect the author was a Libra. She (or he) always explores both sides of the question. But what is the question here? What is it that we are needing to find consensus with now? I am torn between feeling guilty for having all that I have and feeling protective of it. Knowing that things can be lost in a moment due to fire or flood or pandemic does little to staunch my desire to acquire more in my attempts to make me feel safe once again. It is more like the addict seeking to quell the pain of withdrawal by numbing it with the substance that caused the craving in the first place. It is not rational. Only here they are craving safety and security and numbing their awareness of their fragility and vulnerability by brandishing an AK-47 and building a wall.
Three sentences jumped out at me in chapters 9 and 10 of Ecclesiastes, “The words of wise men are heard in quiet more than the cry of him that ruleth among fools. Wisdom is better than weapons of war; but one sinner destroyeth much good.” (9:16-17). There is so much shouting going on right now. We can be distracted by those who are making noise, or we can listen to that quiet voice that exists within ourselves. We are all witness to the destruction that has occurred because of what one man, one party, one blind-eyed ruler has tried to do. “Woe unto thee, O land, when thy king is a child . . .” (10:16).
I certainly do not mean to cherry-pick from this book. I find fault with those who do that, and who collect phrases to support their particular point of view, while ignoring those that don’t. In this book it is particularly hard to do something like that, because both positive and negative, light and dark are woven into each chapter. The author asks us to consider both sides and does not suggest there is a preference for one over the other. He (or she) does suggest that there are certain practices that one can follow, but does not guarantee any outcome other “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.” (11:7).
The final chapter has only 14 sentences, the last of which encapsulates the folly of expecting one side to be right over another. “For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.” (12:14). This gives me some hope for equivalence. It lowers the volume around “my way or the highway” and “I’m right/You’re wrong.” Still, it leaves me to wait for final judgment; to wait for God to decide. And while I can value the wisdom of these thoughts and words, I am unwilling to wait for Judgment Day to bring this to a conclusion.
There is a teaching story about the person walking down a path who suddenly finds themselves having fallen in a hole. This person frets and fumes, “how did this happen to me? I don’t deserve to be in this hole!” and eventually, finds a way out and continues on. Next day, on the same path, the same thing happens. Same conversation. Gets out and goes on their way. Several days (and falls in the same hole) pass, but now, the person is aware of the hole in the path ahead. This time, they fall into the hole, but the conversation while in there is shorter and they get out sooner. Now they are better prepared and, walking down the same path, knowing the hole is ahead, the person finds a way around the hole, and having successfully made it to the other side, celebrates . . . and falls backward into the hole. A few more days pass. By now they have acquired a lot of experience with holes! Finally, after much deliberation, consulting with experts, and making declarations to never make the same mistake again, the person takes a completely different path without holes.
I have to wonder where we are, as a culture, as a species, as caring individuals, on this path we call life? How many times have we fallen in this hole? It feels so very familiar to me! I want this time to be different. I know that I need to find a different path. One that puts tolerance and love in place of prejudice and fear. It is not a familiar path, but I am tired of falling into holes.