WHEN ALL YOU’VE EVER WANTED
By: Harold S. Kushner
When Bad Things Happen to Good People
When Children Ask About God.
Commanded to Live.
About a third of my cases are suffering from
no clinically definable neurosis, but from the
senselessness and emptiness of their lives.
This can generally be described as the neurosis
of out time.
----Carl Jung Modern Man in search of a Soul
Utter futility, all is futility. ----Ecclesiastes 1:1
Oscar Wilde once wrote, “In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” He was trying to warn us that no matter how hard we work at being successful, success won’t satisfy us.
The curator of a butterfly museum in South Wales once introduced me to the “moth with no mouth,” a species of caterpillar that lays its eggs and then changes into a moth that has no digestive system, no way of taking in food, so that it starves to death in a few hours. Nature has designed this moth to reproduce, to lay eggs and pass on the life of the species. Once it has done that, it has no reason to go on living, so it is programmed to die.
Are we like that? Do we live only to produce children, to perpetuate the human race? And having done that, is it our destiny to disappear and make way for the next generation? Or is there a purpose to our existence beyond imply existing? Does our being alive matter? Would our disappearance leave the world poorer, or just less crowded? As Jung correctly understood, these are not abstract questions suitable for cocktail party conversation. They are desperately urgent questions. We will find ourselves sick, lonely, and afraid if we cannot answer them.
There is an old Yiddish saving, “To a worm in horseradish, the whole world is horseradish.” That is, we have never known an alternative, then we must assume that the way we are living, with all of its frustrations, is the only way to live. We come to believe that life has always involved traffic jams and air pollution. Psychotherapy can help us face up to the fact that the world we live in is horseradish. It can cure us of unrealistic expectations about the world. It can even teach us to adjust to this world and thus be less frustrated by it. But it cannot whisper to us of a world we have never seen or tasted. Psychology can, with luck, teach us to be normal, but we must look elsewhere for the help we need to become human.
The question of whether life has meaning. whether our individual lives make any real difference, a religious question not because it is about matters of belief or attendance at worship services but because it is about ultimate values and ultimate concerns. It is religious because it is about what is left to deal with when you have learned everything there is to learn and solved all the problems that can he solved. Religion focuses on the difference between human beings and all other species, and on the search for a goal so significant that we make our lives significant by attach-ing ourselves to it.
America’s Declaration of Independence guarantees every one of us the right to the pursuit of happiness. But because the Declaration is a political document and not a religious one, it does not warn us of the frustrations trying to exercise that right, because the pursuit of happiness is the wrong goal. You don’t become happy pursuing happiness. You become happy by living a life that means something. The happiest people you know are probably not the richest or most famous, probably not the ones who work hardest at it by reading the articles and buying the books and latching on to the latest “happiness” fad.
You don’t become happy by pursing happiness.. It is always a by-product, never a primary goal. Happiness is a butterfly----the more you chase it, the more it flies away from you and hides. But, stop chasing it, put away your net and busy yourself with other, more productive, unselfish things and it will sneak up on you from behind and perch on your shoulder forever.
(The story is told of a member of the Texas state legislature speaking in favor of a bill to outlaw certain kinds of sexual behavior who said, “There are three things wrong with this so-called New Morality. It violates the laws of God. It also violates the laws of Texas. And I’m too old to take advantage of it.”)
But even as I understand it, I can still see it as wrong. Not just morally wrong, something which offends God, but misguided, a policy that causes us to work hard but condemns us to end up somewhere other than where we wanted to be.
A man interviewed by Gail Sheehy for her book Passages (he has left his wife and is living with an eighteen-year-old girl he has just met) puts it this way: “The difficult thing for me to justify is leaving Nan [his ex-wife] high and dry be-cause she hasn’t done anything wrong. She’s still in that other world where we were all brought up to live according to plans...... What I’ve learned from the young people I’ve met out here is that there are no commitments.” In other words, happiness is having no commitments, no one to answer to (which is the literal meaning of the word “irresponsible”), no one whose needs or problems will ever get in your way or tie you down.
The narcissists’ creed, “I am not here to worry about your needs and I don’t expect you to worry about mine. It’s every man for himself,” was not invented in the new twentieth century. It is the latest formulation of an approach which is as old as mankind itself. It was Cain who said scornfully, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” He said that not to justify his murder of his brother, Abel, but to justify his lack of concern for his brother’s well-being: I look out for my best interests and he looks out for his. And what is Cain’s punishment? He becomes a wanderer on the face of the earth, with no place to call home, with no community to support or comfort him. The original looking-out-for-number-one man, like all of his descendants, is condemned to spend all of his days unconnected.
In my all-time favorite movie, Casablanca, the hero Rick, played by Humphrey Bogart, is portrayed at first as a cynical, suspicious, self-protecting person. He stays ahead of the game by looking out only for himself and not giving in to tender feelings. When a desperate man is arrested by the Gestapo in Rick’s bar, he asks Rick, “Why didn’t you help me?” and Rick sneers, “I don’t stick my neck out for anyone.” Rick is living amid the cruelty and unfairness of the Second World War, and has learned that only the man who looks out for himself survives. He had been hurt by life when he made the “mistake” of taking someone else’s welfare as seriously as he took his own. He has grown cynical, safe, and successful. But at some level, he realizes that something is missing from his life. Circumstances have now forced him to become tough and uncaring, but he looks at the Nazi officers stationed in Casablanca, tough, powerful, unsentimental, and he knows that he does not want to be like them.
Flashes of decency break through during the movie, until at the end he gives up his chance for escape and happiness in an act of generosity to the woman he loves. She leaves for England; he is condemned to wander in North Africa. Like Faust, like the young Martin Buber, he found life unsatisfying when he worried only about himself. It was in the process of saving and enriching the lives of others that his own life began to take on meaning. Like Cain, Rick Blame has become a man without a homeland. But unlike Cain, who condemned himself to exile by caring only about himself and refusing to be his brother’s keeper, Rick feels himself alienated from life when he cares only about himself, and feels that he has come home to himself spiritually when he gives up home and wealth and security in an act of self-sacrifice. In some ways, he will now have less, but in ways he has come to consider more important, he has become whole.
The Most Dangerous
Book in the Bible.
T HE SEARCH FOR THE GOOD LIFE, THE MEANING-FUL, SATISFYING LIFE, is one of the oldest religious themes. From its earliest beginnings, religion has tried to connect people to God, to make a vast uncontrollable world seem less threatening. It has connected people to each other so that they would not have to celebrate or mourn alone. And as soon as human beings grew to understand that there was more to life than mere survival, they looked to religion to be their guide to the good life . In Judaism, in Christianity, and in several of the Oriental faith systems, religion is sometimes referred to as The Way, the path to living in harmony with the universe, the guide to living life as it was meant to be lived.
But we today have too often been disappointed when we tried to find guidance in the pages of our religious traditions . They say some very wise and true things, but there is a certainty to them which we often do not share. They speak so confidently of the existence of a God who controls the universe and reveals His will to us. They promise us happiness when we follow His ways and warn us of misfortune if we do not. We read that and we would like to believe it, but we find it hard. Experience so often seems to contradict that. The Bible and the books derived from it seem to be written for believers who can hear God’s voice clearly and see His handiwork everywhere. They do not seem to be written for the troubled modern soul, for the skeptical, the doubting, the confused. The faithful are always saying, “Read the Bible, you will find answers there.” But the restless, the seekers, the skeptics read it and find it a remote book, talking about things far from their concerns. The Bible’s agenda does not seem to be their agenda, and its answers do not seem to fit their questions. Then they feel even worse to discover that something which has been so helpful to so many others does not seem to be speaking to them.
One book of the Bible, however, is unique, different from all the others around it. I would like to introduce you to the most unusual book in the entire Bible. If it were better known, it might be the most dangerous book in the Bible as well. Some people have thought of it that way.
It is the Book of Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes is a small book, barely a dozen pages long in some editions, tucked all the way toward the end of the Hebrew Bible where many readers never get far enough to discover it. But the person who does find it and read it will be aston-ished by what it says. There is nothing quite like it in all of Scripture. It is the work of an angry, cynical, skeptical man who doubts God and questions the value of doing good. “What point is there in working hard?” he asks in the open-ing lines of his book. “A generation passes and another comes along, but the world remains the same forever.” (Eccles. 1:4) “Man has no superiority over beasts, since both amount to nothing. As one dies, so does the other, and both have the same fate.” (Eccles. 3:19) “In my own brief life I have seen this, that a good man perishes in spite of his goodness and a wicked man endures in spite of his wicked-ness, so do not exert yourself to be especially good, for you may be dumfounded.”
Does anyone else in the Bible talk like that? Virtually every other page of the Bible insists that our every deed, however small, matters. We are told that God cares about what we eat, whom we sleep with, how we make and spend money. Ecclesiastes comes and tells us that God does not in fact care about any of that. Rich people and poor, wise and foolish, righteous and wicked are all the same in His eyes. Irrespective of how they live, they all grow old and die and are soon forgotten. How they lived seems to make no difference.
There is a Jewish tradition telling us that when the sages met to fix the canon, to decide which ancient books would be part of the Bible and which ones would be left out, there was fierce debate over the Book of Ecclesiastes. Many found it offensive and threatening to their faith. They not only wanted to leave it out of the Bible, they wanted to ban it entirely, lest innocent young readers come upon it and be led into heresy by it. But somehow, even as they overcame their embarrassment at eroticism of the Song of Songs and the Arabian Nights atmosphere of the Book of Esther, they made room for cynicism and skepticism of Ecclesiastes.
What is this book that so upset the sages of old and so surprises the modern reader who chances upon it? It is a hard book to follow and understand. There is a unity of tone but no plot or story line and no constant development of a theme. The author jumps from subject to subject and sometimes contradicts himself, saying one thing and then its opposite on the same page. Some sages from the book will be familiar: “There is nothing new under the sun”; To everything there is a season, a time to be born and a time to die”; “The sun also rises,” “Cast your bread upon the waters.” But the book as a whole is not easily understood.
We do not know very much about the person who wrote the book. We do not even know his name or when in the thousand-year-long biblical period he lived. Because he describes himself as a descendant of King David and a ruler in Jerusalem, tradition attributes the book to King Solomon, the wisest man in the Bible. A Jewish tradition claims that Solomon is the author of three biblical books. When he was young and in love, he wrote the love poems in the Song of Songs. When he matured and turned his mind to making a living, he penned the practical wisdom of the Book of Proverbs. When he grew older, he gave voice to the feelings of cynicism and futility that we find in Ecclesiastes. Some scholars feel that it was this attribution to King Solomon that persuaded the ancient sages to overcome their doubts and include Ecclesiastes in the Bible.
Even his name, Ecclesiastes (in Hebrew, Kohelet ), is obscure. As far as we know, no one else ever bore that name. Grammatically, it seems more like a title than a personal name (which should not be surprising; ancient authors almost never put their names on their work), and is usually understood to mean “the one who convenes an assembly, the one who calls people together.” He may have been a teacher, a wise man who earned his living preparing the sons of the wealthy for the practical problems of living. Certainly his book, for all of its pessimism, has the tone of one who would share his experience with the young, not only instructing them but warning them.
Whether King Solomon actually wrote the book or not (the language seems to come from a much later period), it seems clear that the man we know as Ecclesiastes was a wise man in or past middle age, trying to deal with his fear of growing old and dying without ever feeling that he had really lived. He seems to be searching desper-ately for something to give his life enduring meaning.
I first discovered the book of Ecclesiastes when I was about seventeen, and I loved it at first sight. I loved the author’s courage and honesty in attacking the orthodoxies of his time, pointing out the hypocrisy and exposing the shallowness of so very much that passed for piety and wisdom in his day. I was fascinated with his wise observations on life, his cynical comments on human nature. They seemed so very profound and pointed, so much more honest than the pious reassurances of most of the Bible. At the time, I thought that Ecclesiastes was like me, an idealistic and young enemy of falsehood and foolishness, a challenger of pomp and pretense.
Now that I have reached the stage in life where Ecclesiastes probably was when he wrote his book, I realize how badly I misunderstood him when I was seventeen. I looked into the mirror of his book and saw my own image reflected back, an idealistic adolescent. But the author was not an adolescent. He was a bitter, weary man past the mid-point of his life. I caught the sharp point of his cynicism, deflating banality. I caught his delight in exposing the wishful thinking and outright falsehood that masquerade as religion. But because I was young when I first read the book, I completely missed the terror which, when I go back to read it now, is so obvious to me.
This is a book by a very frightened man.
Ecclesiastes is not merely a wisdom teacher, more honest and forthright than most. He is not just an enemy of cant and hypocrisy. He is a man desperately afraid of dying before he has learned how to live . Nothing he has ever done, nothing he will ever do, makes any difference, he feels, because one day he will die and then it will be as if he had never lived. And he cannot handle that fear of dying and leaving no trace behind.
“The fate of the fool is destined for me as well; to what advantage then have I been wise? That too was futile because the wise man, like the fool, is not remembered. As the succeeding days roll by, both are forgotten. Alas; the wise man dies just like the fool.” (2:15—16)
In his book, he tells us the story of his life.
He writes of his successes and his frustrations, of all the ways in which he tried to be successful and make something of his life, and of all the reasons why the real question, “What does it all mean in the long run”? was never really answered. Ecclesiastes has been called the most personal book in the Bible. The prophets and other biblical authors sometimes tell us about their lives, their achievements and experiences. But no one else shares his innermost fears and frustrations with us the way Ecclesiastes does.
Ecclesiastes was apparently a man of many, varied talents. In his youth, he set out to make money, and apparently did so. He writes, “I multiplied my possessions. I built myself houses and planted vineyards . ... . I gained more wealth than anyone before me.” (2:4,9)
But he learns that wealth is not the answer.
He understands that he can lose his money as easily as he gained it. Or he can die, and someone else who never worked for it will inherit it. He has seen rich old people spend their wealth foolishly, and he has seen them get sick and spend their last years in misery which all their wealth could not ease. “There is an evil I have observed under the sun, and a grave one it is for man, that God sometimes grants a man riches, property and wealth, so that he does not want for anything, but God does not permit him to enjoy it. If a man beget a hundred children and live many years, but never find contentment, I would say that a stillborn child not even accorded a burial is more fortunate than he.” (6:1—3)
Like many a rich young man, Ecclesiastes gives himself to pleasure, drinking and carousing and sampling all the other distractions that money can buy. “I said to myself, Come, I will treat you to merriment. I ventured to tempt my flesh with wine.. . I withheld from my eyes nothing they asked for..... That too I found was futile . Of revelry, I said, what good is it?” (2:1,10,2) When he is young, he has no problems spending his time in pleasure. After all, like all young people, he has unlimited time, years stretching before him, and he can afford to squander some of them. But as he grows older and his time becomes more precious, he comes to understand that the life of uninterrupted fun is only a way of escaping from the challenge of doing something significant with his life. Having fun can be the spice of life but not its main course, because when it is over, nothing of lasting value remains.
Time, which was once the source of his advantage over older people, has now become his enemy. He is starting to realize that he is running out of time. Ecclesiastes has given us those memorable lines, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and at time to dance.” (3:1-4) Now, this middle-aged author is beginning to suspect that the good times are behind him, that most of the good things which will ever happen to him have already happened, and mostly it is the time of weeping and worrying that lies ahead. Joanne Greenberg has written a short story, “Things in Their Season,” the title of which comes from Ecclesiastes. (It is found in her collection, High Crimes and Misdemeanors, Holt Rinehart & Winston, 1980.) In her story, a group of people inadvertently learn that the government is secretly taxing our time even as it taxes our income. (After all, time is money.) The more valuable your time is, the higher a bracket you are in. That is why busy people never seem to have enough time, no matter how efficient they are. The group hijacks a shipment of time from a government warehouse to extend the life of their beloved teacher, who is dying. But for Ecclesiastes, there is no way to steal time to extend his days.
Finding himself a man of leisure, his years of wild partying behind him, Ecclesiastes turns to learning in an effort to make sense of his life. Somewhere in all those books from the wisest men of the past, there must be the answer to his quest. By now, the reader senses a note of urgency in his searching. He is no longer asking, What does life mean? out of youthful intellectual curiosity. He is asking, What will my life mean? because he is beginning to sense the terrifying possibility that his life may be over soon and it will have meant nothing. Now when his searches lead him into blind alleys, he responds not with disappointment but with mounting despair . The most frustrating fact of all is the realization that death can come all too soon and wipe out all that life has labored for.
He sets out to test the popular proverb, “A wise man has eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness.” (2:14) But what he learns is that if the wise man does in fact see more clearly, what he sees is the futility of life. The wiser he is, the more he sees unfairness, injustice, tragedy. He is now old enough that the shadow of death is beginning to creep into his consciousness and rob everything of meaning. What good is anything I do if it cannot protect me against dying and disappearing? What difference does it make if I am wise and my neighbor is foolish, if I am honest and he is wicked? In either event, the stories of our lives will end the same way. We will both die and be forgotten. All my learning, all my good deeds will die with me.
If wealth and pleasure did not give Ecclesiastes’ life enduring meaning because they were so transitory, here today and gone tomorrow, what can we say about learning? The human mind is so fragile. Not only death but even old age, a stroke, senility can make all that learning disappear. Ecclesiastes may well have seen his own teachers grow old, their brilliance fading into cranky forgetfulness. To what purpose then should one exert oneself to be wise? The rich man loses his wealth when he dies, but the wise man may lose his wisdom even sooner.
There is one possibility remaining. One senses that Ecclesiastes hesitates to try this one, for fear that if it should fail there will be no hope left. He will have to conclude that life is in fact futile and meaningless. In his last desperate throw of the dice, an increasingly fearful Ecclesiastes turns to God . I will be pious, he says. I will follow all the teachings of my religion and look for that sense of peace and tranquility which has been promised to the pure of soul. Like many men and women his age, looking back on a life of struggle and conflict and looking ahead to an uncertain future, Ecclesiastes in middle age becomes religious. He finds time for those pursuits of the spirit for which he had been too busy or too sophisticated until now.
But they too fail him. He learns that even the highest level of piety cannot protect him from death and the fear of death, or from the oblivion to which death leads. No amount of righteous living can bring him to the point where he can bargain with God, where he can say to God, “Look at how valuable and admirable my life is. Isn’t it in Your best interest that I should go on living rather than die and thus be forgotten?”
Is there no answer then? Is our need for meaning nothing more than wishful thinking, the grandiose arrogance of a species that is really no different from the “moth with no mouth”? Are we set on earth for one brief moment, to keep the species alive and then get out of the way of the next generation, so that it too will be able to reproduce and die? Has God planted within us a hunger which cannot be satisfied, a hunger for meaning and significance?
Ecclesiastes wrote his book many hundreds of years ago to share with us his disappointments and frustrations, to warn us that we should not waste our limited time as he did, in the illusion that wealth, wisdom, pleasure, or piety will make our lives matter. He tells us his story with mounting desperation, as one road after another leads to a dead end and he begins to see himself running out of years and running out of options. But he has not written his book only to express his frust-ration or to depress us . In the end, he has an answer. But it is an answer that makes sense only to someone who has shared his earlier dead ends and disappointments. That is why he offers it to us at the end of his story rather than
at the beginning.
A Hasidic story tells of a man who went for a walk in the forest and got lost. He wandered around for hours trying to find his way back to town, trying one path after another, but none of them led out. Then abruptly he came across another hiker walking through the forest. He cried out, “Thank God for another human being. Can you show me the way back to town?” The other man replied, “No, I’m lost too . But we can help each other in this way. We can tell each other which paths we have already tried and been disappointed in. That will help us find the one that leads out.”
Before we can begin to understand Ecclesiastes’ conclusions, we have to first accompany him on the false paths and dead ends he has written to warn us about. When we have learned, as he did so painfully and with so much frustration, which paths do not lead out, we will be better prepared to find and follow the one that does.
In the same vein, the psychologist Erich Fromm, after fleeing from Nazi Gcr-many came to the United States, tried understand how a cultured, educated people like the Germans could have let a man like Hitler come to power.
In his book Escape from Freedom, he suggests an answer: Sometimes, he says, the problems of life become so overwhelming that we despair of ever solving them. Sot, someone come along and say in a loud, confident voice. “Follow me, and so without question, do everything I tell you and I will lead you out of this,” many of us would view that a very tempting offer. When life becomes difficult we want someone to say to us, “Don’t worry your little head about it. Let me do it for you. and all I want in return is your gratitude and total obedience..”
That wish for someone to step in and take over when life starts to get complicated is the child in us speaking from our adult bodies. When religion panders to that wish, when religious leaders keep us in child-like submission and dependence, telling us what to do and asking our obedience in return, it does us a disservice. This is where the religion of Ecclesiastes’ day failed him.
What is a person of integrity like? There is a Yiddish word which is untranslatable but describes him or her perfectly, a mensch. To be a mensch is to be the kind of person God had in mind when He arranged for human beings to evolve, someone who is honest, reliable, wise enough to be no longer naive but not yet cynical, a person you can trust to give you advice for your benefit rather than his or her own. A mensch acts not out of fear or out of the desire to make a good impression but out of a strong inner conviction of who he or she is and what he or she stands for. A mensch is not a saint or a perfect person but a person from whom all falsehood, all selfishness, all vindictiveness have been burned away so that only a pure self remains. A mensch is whole and is one with his or her God.
I have known people of integrity, and the impression they leave is most memorable. There is a quiet confidence to them, a sense of tranquility that comes at the end of the process of figuring out who you are and what you stand for . Unlike anxious religious people who are consumed by the fear that they may have broken some rule and offended God, men and women of integrity are concerned with living up to their own high standards, not with offending or pleasing God. Yet in their presence, one feels that God has real reason to be pleased.
Father Robert F. Drinan was my representative in Congress for several years. He was an articulate spokesman for compassion and liberalism. Because he had been a Roman Catholic priest and dean of a law school before being elected to Congress, his voice was listened to when he spoke out on moral and ethical issues, and he seemed to relish the opportunity to shape American law and life. But when word came down from Rome forbidding priests from holding political office, Robert Drinan stepped aside when his term was over and did not seek reelection. A reporter asked him if he had considered defying the order to get out of politics and he answered, “Oh no, I could never do that.” Some people thought that he was simply living up to his vows to obey his superiors, that he was saying he could not think for himself once the order had been given. But I think I understood what he was saying. He was saying that he knew who he was. Being a Jesuit priest was the core of his identity; everything else, however enjoyable or gratifying it was, was secondary. He could not do anything to betray or conflict with that core. Had he tried to be a Jesuit sometimes and a Congressman sometimes, he would have lost the sense of integrity which comes with being the same person at all times and which was the secret of his strength. Like a photograph which is slightly out of focus, there would now be two images of him, just far enough apart from each other that we would no longer be able to see the person clearly.
With this insight, we are beginning to move from Ecclesiastes’ last questions to the beginnings of his answer. Ecclesiastes turned to religion to make him whole, to help him lead a life of enduring meaning. But the religion of his time, because it demanded obedience rather than authenticity, because it offered more fear and less awe, could not make him whole. It could make him “good” in the sense of obed-ient, but that was not what he was looking for. He needed more from God than that, and because he would not give up the search for it, he finally found it.
It should be pointed out that “whatever it is in your power to do” does not refer only to the things we get paid for. We do many things on a volunteer basis because we want that feeling, which our nine-to-five jobs may not be giving us, of using our skills, making a difference, and being appreciated. So the assembly-line worker coaches a Little League team and knows the satisfaction of teaching, advising, and making decisions. The secretary sings in the church choir or staffs a crisis- center hot line, where she gains the feeling of being depended on and having people look up to her. My synagogue, like churches, synagogues, lodges, and civic organizations across the country, offers opportunities for volunteers to plan programs, chair committees, organize fund-raising events, speak in public, and enhance the fortunes of an organization they cherish, while at the same time gaining the feeling of putting their hidden talents to use.
Sometimes in life we have to become less to be more.
We become whole people, not on the basis of what we accumulate, but by getting rid of everything that is not really us, everything false and inauthentic. Sometimes to become whole, we have to give up the Dream.
The Dream is the vision we had when we were young —perhaps planted by parents or teachers, perhaps flowering from within our own imaginations—that we would be somebody truly special. We dreamed that our names would be famous, that our work would be recognized, that our marriages would be perfect and our children exemplary. When things do not turn out that way, we feel like failures. We will never be happy until we stop measuring our real-life achievements against that Dream. We will never be comfortable with who we are until we realize that who we are is special enough. If we have succeeded in becoming authentically human, eating our bread in gladness and enjoying life with people we love, then we do not have to become rich and famous. Being truly human is a much more impres-sive accomplishment. In Seasons of a Man’s Life, Dr. Daniel Levinson sees middle adulthood as offering the opportunity to renounce the “tyranny of the Dream” and become successful on more realistic terms. He writes, “When a man no longer feels he must be remarkable, he is more free to be himself and work according to his own wishes and talents.”
At one point, the sages of the Talmud say something remarkable. They say, “One hour in this world is better than all of eternity in the World to Come.” What do they mean? I take that passage to mean that when we have truly learned how to live, we will not need to look for rewards in some other life. We will not ask what the point of righteous living is. Living humanly will be its own reward. The person who has discovered the pleasures of truly human living, the person whose life is rich in friendships and caring people, the person who enjoys daily the pleasures of good food and sunshine, will not need to wear herself out in pursuit of some other kind of success. No praise or promotion from strangers, no fancy car or lofty title could ever match the happiness she already knows.
The story is told of the factory that had a problem of employee theft. Valuable items were being stolen every day. So they hired a security firm to search every employee as he left at the end of the day. Most of the workers willingly went along with emptying their pockets and having their lunch boxes checked. But one man would go through the gate every day at closing time with a wheelbarrow full of trash, and the exasperated security guard would have to spend a half-hour, when everyone else was on his way home, digging through the food wrappers, cigarette butts, and Styrofoam cups to see if anything valuable was being smuggled out. He never found anything . Finally one day, the guard could no longer stand it. He said to the man, “Look, I know you’re up to something but every day I check every last bit of trash in the wheelbarrow and I never find anything worth stealing. It’s driving me crazy. Tell me what you’re up to and I promise not to report you.” The man shrugged and said, “It’s simple. I’m stealing wheelbarrows.”
We totally misunderstand what it means to be alive when we think of our lives as time we can use in search of rewards and pleasure. Frantically and in growing frustration, we search through our days, our years, looking for the reward, for the success that will make our lives worthwhile, like the security guard looking through the trash in the wheelbarrow for something of value and all the while missing the obvious answer. When you have learned how to live, life itself is the reward!
Y ou may remember the Hassidic tale mentioned in chapter 2, about the man who was lost in the forest and met another wanderer who told him, “I am lost too. But we can tell each other which paths we have already tried and been disappointed in. That will help us find the one which leads out.”
That was where we began. We accompanied Ecclesiastes on five well-traveled paths that turned out to be dead ends, the way of selfishness and self-interest, the
way of renouncing all bodily pleasures, the way of wisdom, the path of avoiding all feeling in an effort to avoid pain, and the path of piety and religious surrender. The wise old man who wrote the Book of Ecclesiastes began by telling us of his disappointments. Neither wealth nor learning nor piety gave him the satisfaction of knowing that his life would mean something, not in his lifetime nor beyond it. But he did not write his book only to share his frustration with us nor was it included in the Bible to persuade us that life is in fact pointless. Ultimately, Ecclesiastes has an answer and he shares it with us in these words:
Go, eat your bread in gladness and drink your wine in
joy, for your action was long ago approved by God. Let
your clothes always be freshly washed and your head
never lack ointment. Enjoy happiness with a woman you
love all the fleeting days of life that have been granted you
under the sun. Whatever it is in your power to do, do with
all your might. For there is no doing, no learning, no
wisdom in the grave where you are going. (9:7-10)
It is a strange answer, not one we would have expected from him. Has he given up? Is he reduced to saying to us, “Eat, drink, and be merry for who knows how long you will live? Go have a good time since nothing lasts and nothing matters anyhow.” I don’t think he is. “Eat your bread in gladness and drink your wine injoy” may sound a lot like “Eat, drink, and be merry” but coming from Ecclesiastes, I suspect that it means something very different. I really suspect that he is saying something like this : I have examined all the evidence and come to the conclusion that nothing endures and nothing makes a difference . Everything is vanity. Human beings are born and die like flowers or insects and that is all there is to it. The evidence leads me to conclude that life has no meaning. But there is some-thing inside me which will not permit me to accept that conclusion. My mind tells me that the arguments for the meaninglessness of life are overwhelming: injustice and illness and suffering and sudden death, criminals getting away with murder while good people die in shame and poverty. My mind tells me to give up my quest for meaning because there isn’t any. All of my experience points in the same direction. But something from deeper inside me wells up and overrules my mind, dismissing the evidence, and insists that in spite of all, a human life has to mean something . And that feeling, says Ecclesiastes, is why I am a human being and not an animal.
A friend of mine once tried to persuade me that the issue of God’s permitting evil was irrelevant because we define evil from a human point of view, not from God’s vantage point. He said to me, “If frogs wrote theology, they would ask why an all- powerful, loving God did not create more swamps and many more mosquitoes.” I answered him, “Yes, but you’re missing the essential point. Frogs don’t write the-ology but people do. Frogs don’t question the meaning of life but people do, because there is a divine dimension, a bit of God’s image in every one of us, which moves us to ask questions like, Why are we alive? That is why the death of a child is a tragedy while the death of a tadpole is not.”
If logic tells us that life is a meaningless accident, says Ecclesiastes at the end of his journey, don’t give up on life. Give up on logic. Listen to that voice inside you which prompted you to ask the question in the first place. If logic tells you that in the long run, nothing makes a difference because we all die and disappear, then don ‘t live in the long run. Instead of brooding over the fact that nothing lasts, accept that as one of the truths of life, and learn to find meaning and purpose in the transitory, in the joys that fade. Learn to savor the moment, even if it does not last forever. In fact, learn to savor it because it is only a moment and will not last. Moments of our lives can be eternal without being everlasting. Can you stop and close your eyes and remember something that happened for only a moment or two many years ago? It may have been a view of a spectacular landscape, or a conversation that made you feel loved and appreciated. In a sense it did not last very long at all, but in another sense it has lasted all those years and is still going on. That is the only kind of eternity this world grants us. Can you close your eyes and conjure up the memory of someone who is now dead but once meant a lot (the world) to you? YES! Can you, in your mind, hear her voice and feel her touch? YES! There is now proof that a person, by learning how to live, can cheat death and live on beyond her allotted sixty-nine years.
When we stop searching for the Great Answer, the Immortal Deed which will give our lives ongoing meaning, and instead concentrate on filling our individual days with moments that gratify us, then we will find the only possible answer to the question, What is life about? It is not about writing great books, amassing great wealth, achieving great power. It is about loving and being loved. It is about enjoying your food and sitting in the sun rather than rushing through lunch and hurrying back to the office. It is about savoring the beauty of moments that don’t last, the sunsets, the leaves turning color, the rare moments of true human communication. It is about savoring them rather than missing out on them because we are so busy and they will not hold still until we get around to them. The author of Ecclesiastes spent most of his life looking for the Grand Solution, the Big Answer to the Big Question, only to learn after wasting many, many years that trying to find one Big Answer to the problem of living is like trying to eat one Big Meal so that you will never have to worry about being hungry again. There is no Answer, but there are answers: love and the joy of working, and the simple pleasures of food and fresh clothes, the little things that tend to get lost and trampled in the search for the Grand Solution to the Problem of Life and emerge, like the proverbial bluebird of happiness, only when we have stopped searching. When we come to that stage in our lives when we are less able to accomplish but more able to enjoy, we will have attained the wisdom that Ecclesiastes finally found after so many false starts and disappointments.
WHEN ALL YOU’VE EVER WANTED ISN’T ENOUGH
by: Harold S. Kushner
Copyright @ 1986 by Kushner Enterprises, Inc.
Published by SUMMIT BOOKS.
( A division of Simon & Schuster),)
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
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