One of my favourite lines from the film Awakenings is spoken by Dr. Sayer in a job interview scene. He was describing his research history.
It was an immense project. I was trying to extract a decigram of myelin from four tons of earthworms.
I was on it for five years. I was the only one who really believed in it. The rest of them said it couldn’t be done.
Well, I know that now.
I proved it.
The writer of Ecclesiastes came to this conclusion after a lifetime of research:
“Everything is meaningless,” says the Teacher, “completely meaningless.”
I don’t often read Ecclesiastes. It feels like spending an afternoon with a gouty old curmudgeon who will extinguish your dream with a cynical grunt. Today I saw it a little differently.
I heard of a famous physicist who announced to his esteemed colleagues that after 30 years of research he came to the conclusion that his hypothesis was wrong. I was impressed. How often do you see that? (May I admit a secret admiration for writers and speakers who freely admit their failures?)
Although many people worship scientists as unbiased seekers of truth anyone who has been caught in the craziness of ego wars in academia will tell you that they are wounded humans like the rest of us. Sometimes political blockades in the form of withheld research approval only come down with the demise of those in positions of power. But maybe that’s just my disillusioned curmudgeonly side coming out. But, you know, science is not the only field where disillusionment has dented trust. There’s religion, politics, arts, media, sports, romance….
The writer of Ecclesiastes lists the areas in which he spent a lifetime of research. His hypothesis was that these pursuits would bring meaning. His conclusion was that they were all futile (or in King James English “Vanity, vanity…”:
-The pursuit of pleasure (thoroughly investigated)
-Wisdom vs. madness
-Work and professional accomplishment
-The pursuit of justice (in a world of corrupt courtrooms and oppression)
-Political power, respect, and honour
-Striving to please God
No wonder he was in a bad mood. He spent a lot more than five years trying to extract myelin from worms; he spent a lifetime proving that human reasoning and effort alone is not sufficient to comprehend the big, even massive, picture of meaning on this earth, let alone in the universe.
I read a bumper sticker somewhere that said something like, “Perhaps the purpose of your life is to serve as a warning to others.”
Perhaps that is why the stories of tragic drama stay with us longer than happy-ending comedies. The essential moment in a tragedy is that point when the leading character has a flash of insight that allows him to say: This is where I went wrong. That moment gives them the authority to lay the diamond of wisdom at the feet of the audience: This is where you can do it differently. This is where you can repent of my mistakes and change the way you think.
In the final chapters of Ecclesiastes the writer offers us the distilled, refined wisdom of a lifetime that was a process of elimination in the search for meaning. He has earned the right to speak. We need to pay attention.
In my search for wisdom and in my observation of people’s burdens here on earth, I discovered that there is ceaseless activity, day and night. I realized that no one can discover everything God is doing under the sun. Not even the wisest people discover everything, no matter what they claim.
Don’t let the excitement of youth cause you to forget your Creator. Honor him in your youth before you grow old and say, “Life is not pleasant anymore.” Remember him before the light of the sun, moon, and stars is dim to your old eyes, and rain clouds continually darken your sky. Remember him before your legs—the guards of your house—start to tremble; and before your shoulders—the strong men—stoop. Remember him before your teeth—your few remaining servants—stop grinding; and before your eyes—the women looking through the windows—see dimly.
Remember him before the door to life’s opportunities is closed and the sound of work fades. Now you rise at the first chirping of the birds, but then all their sounds will grow faint.
Remember him before you become fearful of falling and worry about danger in the streets; before your hair turns white like an almond tree in bloom, and you drag along without energy like a dying grasshopper, and the caperberry no longer inspires sexual desire. Remember him before you near the grave, your everlasting home, when the mourners will weep at your funeral.
Yes, remember your Creator now while you are young, before the silver cord of life snaps and the golden bowl is broken. Don’t wait until the water jar is smashed at the spring and the pulley is broken at the well. For then the dust will return to the earth, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.