27 May 2013

Lacking in permanence but not in worth - some thoughts on Ecclesiastes

by Kiran Rai, Graduate Diploma in Theology student

Reading the book of Ecclesiastes, you can’t avoid being repeatedly confronted with the “meaninglessness” of life (at least in the NIV). The speaker uses it liberally as a catch-cry, and it colours the entire book. When I read this in the past, I didn’t think too much of it, except for wanting to pat the guy on the back and tell him things would be okay. In my Wisdom Literature class a few weeks ago, my thinking on this was flipped when I learnt that the Hebrew word hebel could actually be translated several different ways. One of these is indeed “meaningless”, but for the material in Ecclesiastes a more appropriate interpretation may be “lacking in permanence but not in worth.”

In today’s culture of disposable goods, short shelf lives, and incessant updates, “lack of permanence” is hardly a foreign concept. We are familiar with regularly getting rid of old and out-dated possessions in favour of newer, shinier ones. This is no accident or by-product; we interact with commodities in this way thanks to a thoroughly intentional marketing strategy called “planned obsolescence.” This dates back as far as 1932, evidenced by a pamphlet entitled: “Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence” authored by Bernard London. According to London, the Great Depression was caused by the continual use of clothes and personal possessions well beyond the intended expiry dates. He proposed that designing objects to fail or fade into irrelevance earlier would drive expenditure higher and restore economic strength. Sound familiar? This semi-covert practice has continued through to today, with countless examples. Anyone who has owned a laptop, cell phone, or any Apple product would confirm this.

The relationship between permanence and worth has become even blurrier than before. The former ideals of durability, longevity, and commitment have come to trigger feelings of out-datedness, short-sightedness and restriction. It could be argued then that western consumer culture teaches that the things around us are lacking not only in permanence, but also in worth. This may not be too troubling to us who have grown up in this environment until we consider that the nature of our consumption may be indicative of the way we have come to view life. We can easily begin to believe that we are valuable only while relevant to the rapidly advancing society around us. Failure to do so at any point would be to jeopardise one’s worth. This sentiment, while rarely verbalised, is part of what fuels the current fear of commitment and long-term decisions amongst young adults.

How then do we read Ecclesiastes? Some may find comfort in the writer’s admission of futility in the universe. But I find it difficult to sit with that as the final viewpoint for the physical world around us in light of the message of the New Testament. Instead, I read it as an acknowledgement that the world is constantly changing, our lives are fleeting, and we often don’t get immediate rewards from our work. Yes, maybe our worldly lives are indeed a kind of planned obsolescence. But unlike discarded bits of technology, we learn from Ecclesiastes that our worth in God is not wrapped up in a window of relevance. It is misguided transference that leads us to treat others and ourselves with a consumer mind-set. Perhaps discovering “meaninglessness” in the world is a stepping-stone to finding true, enduring meaning in the kingdom that Jesus spoke of.

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