I remember reading somewhere that hard times in history (a time of civil upheaval and division in ancient Egypt was the specific instance under discussion) have often provoked the greatest periods of artistic flourishing. Difficulty provokes our deepest responses. The book of Ecclesiastes seems to have been one of these remarkable works that arose out of severe times in Israel’s last few BC centuries, and it strikes me as a book for our times too.
Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 and your legacy
We often speak of being “immortalised in film”. It is a strange idea to me, since film itself is a relatively recent medium, and we regularly forget actors who are still alive. I referenced the movie “The Sixth Sense” in a talk the other day—a film you could not-so-long-ago rely on everybody having seen—and the audience of adult students stared blankly back at me. Generations come and generations go.
Ecclesiastes starts with a poem that sets out a recurring theme of the book: the meaninglessness and brevity of a life that can’t escape the shadow of death. The poem asks what is gained by the toiling of human existence—what there is of permanence?—and in answer the poet points to the coming and goings of generations, and a world that carries on as it always has, with or without us. The rising of the sun, the circuits of the winds, the flowing of water into the sea. There is nothing new, says the poet; it is only our discovery of things that makes them seem new to us. As for us, “No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.”
We expend our lives trying to build legacies, trying not to be forgettable, trying not to be forgotten. Ecclesiastes says that the world will go on, but you and I will disappear from our places and nothing will remain. I remember the names of my grandparents. I have no idea what their parents were called and I don’t think I ever knew.
Ecclesiastes is undeniably pessimistic, but as every pessimist protests, it is also just realistic. What good do our legacies do us once death and decay claim them? So many of us live as if leaving a legacy or “immortalising oneself” in some or other medium is how to win at life, but being optimistic or pessimistic doesn’t change the outcome.
The current pandemic is a threat to life and legacy, but it does us the service of calling us to think about the game of life and how we play it. It’s an opportunity to see life freed from our comfortable delusions.