Are All Things Vanity?

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Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,
vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!
What profit has man from all the labor
which he toils at under the sun?
One generation passes and another comes,
but the world forever stays.

Ecclesiastes 1: 1-4

In my first introduction to the Book of Ecclesiastes, I remember hearing its author being described as “cynical.” And so it seems.  We worry, sweat, and toil for our appointed time, and, yet, at least until the damage we have inflicted on the planet since the industrial age, the world goes on as it always has, apparently unchanged and uninfluenced by our efforts. In the face of a reality which we have so little power to change, the options before us seem to be cynicism or delusion. The rivers continue to flow to the sea, all forms of life continue to rise and to fall, to come into life, to flourish, and to die and then be replaced by new forms. Even the greatest and most lasting achievements of the human race eventually cease to exist, through natural causes or the violence and brutality of human beings, as recently in Aleppo and Palmyra.

At the personal level, human science works to lengthen our lives and improve our lot, and yet, it can seem that we but replace one mode of suffering for another. And, so, we might, in the end,  ask”Why bother?” The cynical perspective, however, is the fruit of an ego or pre-transcendent perspective. At the level of ego, it is frustratingly bad news that what we can do and accomplish is limited and that in the end everything, including us, passes. From the transcendent or spiritual perspective, however, “being put in our place” is good news.

Jesus echoes the teaching of Qoheleth but in a way that allows us to see the transitoriness of things much more positively.

So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6: 31-4)

To know our own littleness and the limitations of our contribution in the world need not lead to cynicism but rather a joyful, peaceful and generous life of service. When we demand of reality that it submit to our efforts or else, when our dedication and consistency are dependent on what we see as satisfactory results, our work becomes anxious, and we find ourselves prone to discouragement and angry withdrawal. But when we see that all is God’s, and so not ours to determine or control, we can keep on offering what we have to give without concern for the results.

Lately I find myself thinking about what appear to be the fruitless efforts of those who are working to find some way out of the apparently intractable horrors of the war in Syria. People on all sides of the political spectrum claim to have the solution and criticize any efforts at negotiation. And, as we witness the horrific bombing of the aid convoy to Aleppo and the breaking down of the attempted cease-fire, it would seem that the cynics and critics are right. And yet, despite what appears to be the fruitlessness of the effort, some dedicated persons continue to struggle to find a way out of the violence and horror. What moves people to “keep working” even when all efforts seem frustrating and fruitless, when so much bad will seems to destroy the possibility inherent in any effort?

At the more personal level, all of us continually face the question of whether or not we should continue to work, to spend ourselves in situations, relationships, labors that seem to show so few effects as a result of our efforts. To remain committed and dedicated to the task and persons at hand finally requires of us that we recognize the limits of our own perspective. The world is so much larger than our version of it. We never know the actual results of our place and our work in the world. It is in recognition of our own littleness that we become free to serve the mystery of God and God’s world with joy and peace, and maintain a generosity that is free of cynicism and frustration.

This is why the work God has “given us to do” can only be done from a “contemplative stance.” That stance is not a sense of ourselves as idealized or spiritualized, but, quite the contrary, one that knows our true and humble place as sharing and serving in our own small but significant way the love that is common to all and that manifests itself in all the life and rhythm of creation.

The sun of awareness in the gaze of the heart is not a heightened state of awareness that soon descends into a trough of awareness only again to ascend the heights. The Vastness of awareness itself grounds all these changing states of mind. The condensation of our innumerable states of mind—thoughts, mood, and character—is an ever-changing pattern of weather. But this terrain of mountains and valleys of simple awareness witnesses all these changing patterns of weather as they move through our psychological terrain, changing as all weather changes. The heart’s vastness receives pain, strife, confusion, fear, anger, frenzy, yet is untouched by pain, strife, confusion, fear, anger, frenzy. It is as immediately present to pain or illness that is being healed as it is to pain or illness that is not being healed. It receives and lets go as a riverbed receives and lets go—both at the same instant—of all the water of daily life the river carries along.

Martin Laird, A Sunlit Absence: Silence, Awareness, and Contemplation, pp. 84-5

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