Sometimes Wish I’d Never Been Born at All

Ecclesiastes 6:3-5

Ages ago, when I worked summers at Mt. Washington Cemetery, my brother, the supervisor, came in his Jeep and summoned me to join him. “Where are we going?” I asked as I walked away from Eddy and the work we were doing.

“Just get in the Jeep,” he said before heading to a different part of the property. En route I noticed a box in the back of the Jeep. When we arrived, we found a small party assembled near a new-dug grave. That’s when I realized that the box contained Michael, a two-year-old incomprehensibly stabbed to death by his mother because “the devil was going to get him.”

Dennis and I carried the box to that grave. Michael’s mother stood there, handcuffed to a detective. His father and the remainder of the family clustered across the grave, weeping.

Looking back on that as a father and a husband, I cannot imagine the grief that father must have experienced. He must have felt, like the character in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” that he’d “sometimes wish I’d never been born at all.” That’s perhaps the sort of despair we encounter in today’s text:

A man may father a hundred children and live many years. No matter how long he lives, if he is not satisfied by good things and does not even have a proper burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. For he comes in futility and he goes in darkness, and his name is shrouded in darkness. Though a stillborn child does not see the sun and is not conscious, it has more rest than he.

Ecclesiastes 6:3-5

Careful Reading

That day in the cemetery affected me. In fact, it continues to affect me. Just a few weeks ago, I visited Michael’s grave, reflecting. Surely the boy’s father, probably around 60 now, also thinks about what might have been, perhaps every day. But I hope he has managed to get on with a life despite that grim memory. I hope he’s able to be satisfied by good things.

As we read those verses attentively, we’ll see that Solomon is not telling us that having lots of kids and living a long life are prescriptions for despair. Instead, he inserts an “if.” “If he is not satisfied by good things,” the passage says. In other words, merely having a quiver full of sons and a long life will not solve the problems of life under the sun without that “if.”

The longer we live, the more opportunities we have for bad things to afflict us. The more children one has, the greater chance there is that one of them will go completely off the rails and create a full measure of heartache. That’s why we need to be able to take joy in the good things. Only by focusing on the good things can Michael’s father get past the horrible tragedy of losing wife and son in one awful moment.

Getting in Tune

Freddy Mercury closed his song with “Nothing really matters to me,” which is clearly not even something that he could take seriously. The problem with this world is that many things do matter. If we’re going to live in this world, if we’re going to complicate our lives with family, then we are going to have pain and tragedy. Probably our tragedy will not rise to the level of the murder of a two-year-old, but we will have something that, at the time, seems that great.

Our only hope, under the sun, is that we take joy in the good things. Perhaps that’s what Jesus meant in John 10:10 when He indicated that He had come to give us life and to give it abundantly. By focusing ourselves on Jesus as the ultimate good thing, we can get through the worst days of our lives.

Fame Like a Mist–Ecclesiastes 2:16-17

For, just like the fool, there is no lasting remembrance of the wise, since in the days to come both will be forgotten. How is it that the wise person dies just like the fool? Therefore, I hated life because the work that was done under the sun was distressing to me. For everything is futile and a pursuit of the wind.–Ecclesiastes 2:16-17

The grounds of Mt. Washington Cemetery are littered with stones. Maybe I shouldn’t say “littered,” since that suggests that the stones are placed randomly and without good purpose. Instead, you’ll see stones in (mostly) neat rows, all placed to mark the burial spot of somebody. Having spent three summers in my youth working on those grounds and then visiting it numerous times because of my family buried there, I’m quite familiar with those stones.

When you walk the area near my family’s plot, you’ll see several impressive structures. One, marked “Byrd,” looks like a miniature version of Athens’ Parthenon. Another, over the hill, seems like a good-sized Medieval church perched on a hillside. No one, seeing these two mausoleums (mausolea?) would doubt that the people interred there came from families with a huge amount of money. The Byrds were involved in a thriving retail business a hundred years back. The one over the hill belongs to William Rockhill Nelson, founder of The Kansas City Star.

What we can’t tell by looking at these grave markers is the relative wisdom and foolishness of the people commemorated there. When we throw out the extraordinary burial sites, we’ll find thousands of slabs of granite and marble that all look remarkably similar. They’ll have names and dates etched onto them. Some are larger and some are smaller, but in the end they’re all pretty similar.

Walk along those grounds thoughtfully. A couple of notions might strike your mind. First, the vast majority of these people are as utterly anonymous as the vast majority of people you encounter at the grocery store. Second, you can tell even less about these people here than you can typically tell about the ones at the grocery.

Have you ever thought that you could distinguish the wise and the fool as you browse the canned-goods aisle? I have. I’m sure I can’t do it with 100% accuracy, but I have fair confidence in many of these determinations. On the other hand, the people under the headstones are pretty much leveled.

Nobody etches “Fool” or “Terrible Mother” or “Spendthrift” or “Lazy” or “Easily Deceived” on the headstone of their family. The markers of veterans rarely differentiate between the hero and the coward. Instead, in death, everyone is a “Beloved mother and grandmother” or a “PFC, US ARMY, WORLD WAR II.”

So here’s the bottom line. Unless your wisdom or foolishness exists far out on the edges of the bell curve, it’s not likely to be remembered after your funeral flowers wilt. The things that seem so important to us today, will seem exceptionally small down the road. So again, even wisdom, which the Bible repeatedly urges us to pursue, will become a futile thing in the end–at least “under the sun.”