In Sinead O’Connor’s song Something Beautiful on her Theology album, she uses a brilliant phrase. Every time I hear ‘chronic Christmas Eve’ it leaps out at me because it conjures up an image of waiting, always an eve, never the day, waiting for something or someone to arrive but it never happens. Day after day, year after year, seeking we know not what and nothing ever changes, every day the same, stuck in Groundhog Day with Phil Connors only it is Christmas Eve. The baby born on Christmas Day is for someone else. “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, just not mine,” Patti Smith sings in the first version of her song Gloria. Life streams a monotonous search for meaning until we just don’t care anymore.
The Teacher wrote Ecclesiastes, a book from the wisdom section of the Bible, and he was involved in his own Groundhog Day search for meaning. He wrote an account of his search in the third century BCE. In fact, his account conjures images akin to the bag blowing in the wind from American Beauty and the tumbleweed rolling along in the opening scene from The Big Lebowski. He describes our lives as chasing after the wind, empty and futile, vanity, as he calls it. Maybe only the most content of souls does not feel the melancholy his book and these images evoke. But there are many who wrestle with the meaning of life and feel acutely our predicament at the paradoxes confronting us.
His investigation has captured the hearts and minds of writers, poets, artists, movie producers and musicians alike, and their own explorations of meaninglessness have become classics people return to again and again. The book contains the only passage from the Bible to reach the Top Ten in music, Pete Seeger’s Turn! Turn! Turn! To Everything There Is a Season, when it was sung by The Byrds in 1965.
In twelve simple chapters the Teacher explores the meaning of life and the results of his research resonate. He looks with clear eyes using questions to define our situation. He calls meaninglessness vanity, a word that comes up more than thirty-five times in his work.
When we turn to this book, we find someone who has searched everywhere he can think of to find hope in the search for meaning. The Teacher doesn’t hide from the truth, the difficulties of discovering the secrets of this world. His gift to us is to describe life as it is. Our bus appears stuck, going nowhere as we flit from idea to idea.
So far as I can see from…observing you, yours is the way of life, the way of thought, of feeling, and of acting, of the Preacher of Ecclesiastes. I know of no better way. For of all that I have ever seen or learned, that book seems to me the noblest, the wisest, and the most powerful expression of man’s life upon this earth—and also the highest flower of poetry, eloquence, and truth. I am not given to dogmatic judgments in the matter of literary creation, but if I had to make one I could only say that Ecclesiastes is the greatest single piece of writing I have ever known, and the wisdom expressed in it the most lasting and profound.
Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again, Ch. 47
Off the Beaten Path:
Robert L. Short’s book of Ecclesiastes in photos: https://archive.org/details/timetobebornatim0000shor/mode/2up
Sinead O’Connor sings Something Beautiful: https://youtu.be/haYbyQIEgQk
Phil Connors explains his situation to Rita: https://youtu.be/6VF5P7qLaEQ
Patti Smith sings Gloria: https://youtu.be/4JMSkcCV790
Lester Burnham is involved in his own search for meaning in American Beauty: https://youtu.be/WlRGxeGdZrQ
The bag blows in the wind in American Beauty: https://youtu.be/gHxi-HSgNPc
Jeffrey Lebowski, the Dude, wasn’t always a lazy man. Somewhere along the way he lost his spark to fight for change. Here the tumbleweed rolls in The Big Lebowski: https://youtu.be/j1epEtB0lVo
The Byrds sing Turn! Turn! Turn! To Everything There Is a Season: https://youtu.be/W4ga_M5Zdn4
I have never gotten through Thomas Hardy’s You Can’t Go Home Again but his quote resonates with me because I return to the book of Ecclesiastes again and again. How exactly does Hardy’s character resemble the Teacher? Maybe someday I will find out.