I thought about all that I achieved, and all the work put into its achievement. What vanity it all was, what chasing after the wind! There is nothing to be gained under the sun. – Ecclesiastes 2:11
Lesson: In the large scheme of things, nothing we do matters very much.
Importance is a matter of perspective. The second pharaoh of the Third Egyptian Dynasty was probably a person of significance back in the third millennium BCE. Today, Sekhemkhet has poor name recognition, and no one views him as a god. The same is true for our accomplishments in life. Your noteworthy accomplishments are generally noteworthy only to you, not your neighbors, and maybe not even your family. When I got my PhD, I wanted to have a party; nobody else had any interest. To my wife at the time, it was the end of an ordeal.
Things may matter a lot to you and me, but they don’t matter to the larger world. To the universe, the only reason we’re here in the first place, they don’t matter at all. The universe is about 15 billion years old; my four score and ten do not register on the meter. All of us, rich or poor, famous or infamous, end up as dust. Every society comes to an end. And the world continues.
This lesson, which is common to all wisdom literature, is a difficult one. It can be discouraging to hear that everything we’ve spent our lives doing is basically meaningless. But the sages believed the discouragement we may feel was caused by false expectations. When we expect too much, we are bound to be disappointed, because we fail to achieve what we hoped. Correspondingly, the falseness of our hopes is rooted in a mistaken, distorted perspective. A more honest outlook serves to limit discouragement, and increase happiness, which, for the sages, was always the goal.
I spent my working life involved in helping people: pastor, substance abuse counselor, community college instructor. Life is hard, and trying to help others is a good thing to do. But neither can I say the world is a better place because of my efforts. Violence, addiction, and ignorance continue as ever. Any help I may have provided to a particular individual is a small part of their life, and usually a forgotten one. It’s as if my work simply disappeared somewhere on my trek through the jungle.
To expect anything else, however, would be unwise, assigning too much importance to my work, making myself more essential than I am. Whatever good I imparted into the world is part of a very long, continuous swirling flow, with no permanent results. In the end, my work is important because it is important to me. To presume more is to lack perspective and end up discouraged. Satisfaction lies in knowing the limits, content in accomplishing what matters to you.
Accepting that nothing we do matters very much has some meaningful ramifications.
1. Most of our troubles are of our own making, since trouble inevitably results from making things more important than they are.
In reality, few things are worth an argument. I haven’t always lived that way, but eventually I realized how little arguments accomplish. They have no meaning beyond our own investment in them, which simply adds to the problem. I’ve had arguments that lasted until I couldn’t remember what started them. I’ve had arguments about the same problem so many times that the dialogue could be predicted like a screen play in continual rehearsal.
Recognizing a problem’s lack of importance is what allows us to let go of it, because the perceived benefit isn’t worth the frayed relationships and personal stress. Few things are that vital. This different point of view is what makes compromise and solutions possible.
It’s the same conclusion every addict must reach in order to maintain recovery; what they regard as important needs to change. But addicts are not different from the rest of us. We all have problems caused by mistaken perspectives, and continual disappointment interferes with our lives.
2. The weight of the world we sometimes feel is because we put it there.
There is too much over which we have no control to take full responsibility for any particular outcomes. In reality, the extent of our control usually varies between little and less. This is equally true whether we’re worried about the state of the world, or caring for children, or trying to improve our circumstances in life. For good or bad, it isn’t simply up to you.
As an addiction counselor, where success is infrequent, it is wise not to become invested in the results. The same is true for parenting. Parents are a significant influence upon their children, but they are only part of the story. As counselors and as parents, we contribute, but we don’t determine.
Instead, letting go of the outcome allows us to do what is most important in the moment, without an eye on some intended goal. The future is unpredictable; the only certain moment is the present one. In all the actions we take, it is wise to keep that in mind.
This also protects us from burnout. Burnout results from a self-importance that clouds our judgment and leads to inevitable distress. What we do isn’t as important as it often seems. Do the best you can, each day, and see what happens.
3. To think otherwise, according to the author of Ecclesiastes, is pure vanity. In fact, the writer mentions vanity a fair amount, seeming to think there is a good bit of it going around. What is vanity? Vanity is to base our lives on something that isn’t real. It’s the ultimate end of making things more important than they are. Like the emperor with no clothes, people end up dressed in nothing more than vanity. They may look substantial, but there’s nothing there.
To be fair, this isn’t simply a problem for emperors. All of us are prone to feed our fantasies. Perhaps it’s why the author of Ecclesiastes never provides her name. That would be a form of vanity.
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