The Meaning of Life

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“Hevel, hevel, everything is utterly hevel.” Ecclesiastes 1:2

The search is on, what is the meaning of life, not just mine, but all life.

I’m obsessed with the word hevel. It appears thirty-eight times in Ecclesiastes, part of the wisdom literature, and loosely translates to something akin to smoke, vapor, or fog. Like the fog, life is beautiful and mysterious, it takes on many shapes, but try and grab it, and it slips right through your damn fingers. Life is unclear, confusing, disorienting, unpredictable because when your in a “fog” it’s impossible to see a clear picture.

With the unexpected death of Kobe Bryant I think everyone can agree on the unpredictable nature of life and the difficulty when maneuvering in the fog. 

Hevel is a metaphor for life because other than God no one has the ability to understand the full scope and sequence of the lush mystery of our existence.

Is there relevance to life?

According to Ecclesiastes the answer might not be what you want to hear.

What if life is meaningless?

Think about this, generations come and go, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and sets, the wind blows, the oceans ebb and flow. People die, this is our common denominator, the great equalizer. Death devours the rich and the poor, the famous and the obscure, the good and the bad, the educated and the ignorant equally, and out of sequence I might add.

Investing time, money and emotion in the meaningless systems we have created is ridiculous, yet this is what we are trained to do. We live in a culture designed by Ford, we assemble people, conveying them through an educational system designed to mold us into workers. We teach strict adherence to rules and regulations, demote creativity, incite fear of the future, and above all promote savings, because the government is not going to take care of you, they’re busy assembling the next generation of workers.

By the time one saves enough money to retire, and go on that long dreamed of vacation, you’re either to old to enjoy it, or there are unexpected travel restrictions. It’s all wretch and not vomit as Alan Watts claims. You never get there.

I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all. Ecc 9:11

Good people die young, bad people live long and profitable lives, there is no rhyme or reason to the randomness of life. It’s as if we’re all living in a pinball machine with God as wizard, the randomness of the cascading ball is clear, the flippers only add to the hevel, because eventually we all end up in the queue.

The march of time does not stop. A hundred years from now no one will remember you, you are a blip, the human race is a blip, in fact our sun is only a tiny spark in time. As Don Miguel Ruiz claims death is not the biggest fear we have; maybe our biggest fear is taking the risk to be alive – the risk to be alive and express who we really are?

May I be so bold as to suggest a solution?

We need to turn things upside down.

We might be insignificant but yet we’re here?

Time, death, and the randomness of life might be the source of hevel, life remains out of our control, and from our vantage we lack clarity, but as Rachel Naomi Remen notes the willingness to consider possibility requires a tolerance of uncertainty. 

If life is temporary or fleeting what do we do with our days that give meaning to our lives, some purpose to our existence?

What is important are the things we can control. Read that again.

According to Ecclesiastes we must accept the hevel, stop worrying about all the shit we can’t control, have faith that life does have meaning even though we can’t begin to appreciate, or understand the larger picture. As Jiddu Krishnamurti claims, if you begin to understand what you are without trying to change it, then what you are undergoes a transformation.

What if we accept the life in which we are confronted, and started moving from a position of not only tolerance, but hospitality? Yes, we need money to survive, but what if we shifted our focus to that which is most important?

Family, friendships, a good meal, a beautiful day, a simple bottle of wine, a run along the beach, a pilgrimage, a meaningful conversation, a loyal dog, a good book, crackling fire, a recess  if you will from the daily grind?

Good Lord let there be a conclusion?

Since we can’t control life stop holding on to it so tightly. Like Queen Elsa sings, “let it go.” We can work hard but also enjoy our lives, prioritize our loved ones, set a nice table, sit down to a good meal, say grace, open some wine, eat slowly, taste your food, leave some scraps under the table for the dog, put down the phones, listen to each other, observe the beauty that surrounds you, and those rare moments when you recognize the sacredness of all life.

Life is very, very simple and easy to understand, but we complicate it with the beliefs and ideas that we create. Don Miguel Ruiz

Life might defy our comprehension, but it does have meaning, we need to give ourselves permission to enjoy it, and in doing so honor the sacredness of our existence, and the God who created us. As Thomas Merton notes, “I am gift. All that I am is something that’s given, and given freely.” You are a living, breathing, miracle…remember this, tattoo it on your heart, you survived your childhood, the bell has rung, go out and play.

“Hevel, hevel, everything is utterly hevel.” Ecclesiastes 1:2

 

I’m Living in the Gap, drop by anytime, we’ll take a walk in the rain.

Anecdotes:

  • Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction. E.F. Schumacher
  • “We all know we’re going to die; what’s important is the kind of men and women we are in the face of this.” Anne Lamott 
  • The most important thing is to try and inspire people so that they can be great in whatever they want to do. Kobe Bryant
  • Before we were born, a whole society of storytellers was already here. The storytellers who were here before us taught us how to be human. Don Miguel Ruiz

17 Comments

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    1. Hi Cynthia! I agree, I feel much more secure in my own little corner of the world, and more effective in this space, but sometimes it’s difficult to understand or perceive the larger picture. I try and do my part hoping it adds to the whole! Thanks for the comment!

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  1. Well, I thought I had done enough writing on your wonderful blog site and was getting ready to immerse myself in my pre-super bowl preps (Go Niners!), However, I foolishly glanced at your latest entry, and was immediately sucked in. You nailed it with an instant twofer. Ecclesiastes and Kobe Bryant. No more need be said. Ecclesiastes is my favorite Old Testament writing. It is what I turn to when I search for deeper meaning to life (and yes, it is in there.) Reading it I am reminded that the purpose of life is in the living. Then Kobe Bryant. A tragic reminder that no one escapes this life alive. Tall, athletic, wealthy, intelligent, successful, and yet dust in the wind like the rest of us. Mourn, yet celebrate a great life.
    You write …..”Yes, we need money to survive, but what if we shifted our focus to that which is most important? Family, friendships, a good meal, a beautiful day, a simple bottle of wine, a run along the beach, a pilgrimage, a meaningful conversation, a loyal dog, a good book, crackling fire, a recess if you will from the daily grind?” I love this!!!! Live!, Love!, Help others! Be someone’s rock! Enjoy the little things. Drink that coffee! Go for it! Live is short. Death will be here soon enough.
    A little humor…. Nothing says Jamaican Olympics like John Candy, though I like Johnny Nash better. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MrHxhQPOO2c Not sure why my youtube link gives me cannabis adds. Jamaica?
    And I realize you have posted this song in the past, but it is my favorite Ecclesiastical song. For some odd reason, this song brings me to tears. I love this beautiful version by Pete Seeger and Judy Collins (aka the golden Pipes):

    Your post did a fabulous job of tying in the deeper, spiritual aspects of the meaning of life and life’s purpose, with current worldwide events. Well done.
    Thank you for making my day.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Mike, So glad you glanced at this one and took the time to respond amidst the preparations for the big game. My students did a presentation on Ecclesiastes last week and I loved the hevel metaphor, so I sat down that night, and started writing about it. A few days later Kobe died, I was up in the Sierra’s skiing with friends when the news came in, and like a lot of other people I was shocked. I’m listening to Turn, Turn, Turn as I respond to your comment. I didn’t have my computer with me at the time, but as I was getting back my ski legs the two issues started to merge, and I could “see” so to speak how profoundly they fit together. It was fate.

      Ecclesiastes has always been a favorite of mine but I the word hevel was new to me, I’ve always heard it translated as meaningless? The idea of hevel being difficult to grasp, difficult to see through, always changing, and unmoldable really appealed to me. It was such a good reminder to live in the moment, appreciate the simple things, stop worrying about the things I can’t control. Easy to decide, difficult to do!

      Glad to hear we’re both cheering for the same team – Go 49er’s – big day tomorrow. Enjoy!

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    1. Thanks for the comment Serena, I’ve never heard the word hevel either, it was always translated to meaningless. I too am intrigued by the metaphor and the wisdom of enjoying the simple things in life, trusting, and letting go. All difficult concepts to actually abide by. All my best, Cheryl

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    1. Thank you Solid Parent! So glad this post resonated with you, I was struggling along with the rest of the world when the unexpected happens, and Ecclesiastes was a goldmine of inspiration. Thanks for the comment. All my best, Cheryl

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  2. A wonderful post. I’ve never heard the word hevel but I don’t think I’ll forget it now. The whole meaning of life topic consumes us while we’re trying to squeeze in some living. We should do what we can with what we have while we have it. Thank you for the thought-provoking topic.

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    1. Thank you Ana, I had never heard of the word “hevel” either, until I stumbled on it in a biblical commentary that focused on the original word hevel, which is often translated to meaningless. I loved the imagery and significance of something beautiful but difficult to grasp. It gave me a lot to think about too, thanks for the comment, and giving it some thought. All my best, Cheryl

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  3. I too have been reflecting on death lately. We try to hold to our lives but when that timer goes off…it’s all over.

    In 2020, I’m learning to let go…all is truly vanity. I’ve made myself ponder how I would react to the death of my close loved ones. I’ve also made peace with my time whenever it comes. Can’t fight the inevitable!

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  4. Great thoughts. I loved your shuemacher quote. Have you read small is beautiful? It’s genius and a book ahead of it’s time.

    Liked by 1 person

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