Honestly! What is life’s work all about anyway? Why do we work so hard to create, build, achieve, write? I feel sad when I think of this question as I see an estate sale. I remember the estate sale that our family had for my Aunt Ruth. She had never married, and I and her sister (my mother) were her only close family. She worked all her life as an auditor for Sears, living in an apartment in Lincoln, Nebraska. She traveled a lot and had many souvenirs of her travel that she carefully placed in scrapbooks and looked at often. She had a collection of ceramic birds she acquired over the years and loved to tell where each came from. At her death, all that she had worked for and all that she loved and cherished as far as material goods was concerned went on the auction block, to be purchased by the curious and the bargain seeker for the lowest price possible, with the exception of a few things my mother and I kept.
Perhaps the writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes had been to an estate sale recently when he wrote these words about life—“all is vanity, a chasing after the wind.”
The book of Ecclesiastes is one of the Wisdom Books of the Old Testament. We know the writer’s name only as “Qoheleth”, often translated “preacher” or “teacher”. Ecclesiastes is about his experiement he conducted in honesty. It is probable that Qoheleth was an old man looking back on his life and trying to determine the meaning of it. He looked over every aspect of life—all human endeavor—and attempted to discern what endures, what lasts, and what it all means. He summed up his conclusions in these words: “I considered all that my hands had done, and toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after the wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (Eccl 2:11) and he asks “What gain have the workers from their toil?” (Eccl. 3:9)
Qoheleth recounts all his efforts in the first few chapters, saying: “I built”, “I made great”, “I planted”, “I made”, “I acquired, “I gathered”, and yet all of this doing he found to be a mirage, an illusion. It all goes down unto death and “there is nothing new under the sun.” Is Qoheleth being too pessismistic, or just being a realist? I think he raises an important question, which is: “What is the purpose, then, of work?” Why bother? And I think Qoheleth gives an answer that is often overlooked.
For an achievement-oriented society such as ours, I think that the question of the purpose of work is a one we need to attend to and to seek for an answer. Qoheleth speaks persuasively to those with great and ambitious plans for success, who are ripe for disillusionment, whether in the business world, a profession, politics, raising children, ministry, or academia. He reminds us that in every vocation there is the personal struggle to make progress that can bring one to the brink of burnout and despair. Qoheleth reminds us that: It is all too easy to fall into the trap of pinning one’s hopes on our human capacity to fulfill our dreams and goals, no matter how lofty and worthy, only to have those hopes sacrificed upon the altar of meaninglessness and failure and loss. When we do this we are “chasing the wind!”
Qoheleth is NOT saying that one should not have goals and objectives, but that THE DANGER LIES IN ATTACHING PERSONAL FULFILLMENT TO THE END RESULT OF THESE GOALS AND OBJECTIVES.
He is saying that not much endures, but endurance is not the true test of our work. If that is the case, what is the test of our work? Qoheleth says it is for the joy of just using our skills and abilities and living day by day. He is NOT saying that work is pointless and therefore to be avoided. He IS saying that work should be enthusiastically and vigorously engaged in. Listen to him: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do with all your might.” (Eccl 9:10)
Qoheleth IS SAYING: Our achievements through our work ought to be enjoyed for their own sake, for how they fill our days, and how they celebrate our God-given gifts for creativity and productivity. IF YOUR WORK IS SOMETHING YOU DO IN ORDER TO GET SOMETHING ELSE, THIS WILL LEAD TO FRUSTRATION AND DESPAIR, Quoheleth says, ENJOY IT AS AN END INITSELF, AND THERE IS YOUR REWARD. THE REWARD IS NOT IN THE ENDURANCE OF YOUR ACTIVITY FOREVER, BUT IN THE ACTIVITY ITSELF.
Let’s face it, most of the trouble we have with our work is when we fail to keep our work in its place. We become obsessive, presuming to secure ourselves and define ourselves through our work. How much do we define ourselves by what we do? What happens when we can no longer do it? If we have defined ourselves personally by our work, then when we cease to be able to work we become nothing. We’ve been chasing the wind!! PEOPLE ARE NOT WHAT THEY DO, THEY ARE WHO THEY ARE—living beings created in the image of God and blessed with his love and grace.
Qoheleth reminds us that since what we produce by our work is mere “chasing the wind” that comes to nothing, then we should just enjoy the simple pleasures of life, the day-to-day routine, the rhythm of it all, the good feeling of creating our little piece to add to the whole picture of God’s plan for the world. The Romans had a word for it—-carpe diem—-“seize the day”!! Our achievements ought to be enjoyed for their own sake, for how they help fill our days, and for how they celebrate our God-given gifts and skills each day!
For example: I like to do woodworking. One of the things I have built is a grandfather clock. I always wanted to do that when I retired! I love my clock and I take great pleasure in looking at what I have created and listening to it chime. I doubt that it will last forever. It is not the greatest clock ever built, but I enjoyed building it! Hopefully it will be kept in my family, but I have no guarantee of that. It may wind up in an estate sale someday in the future. It won’t last forever. But I have taken a great deal of joy in its creation and in the using of my skills in woodworking to create it—and that is all that I can hope for, and that is enough!! To do otherwise would only be “vanity” and “chasing after the wind!”.