The Unsatisfied Mind

Ecclesiastes 5:10-12

For some reason, I’m hearing Johnny Cash singing:

How many times have you heard someone say
“If I had his money, I could do things my way.”
But little they know that it’s so hard to find
One rich man in ten with a satisfied mind

I think you’ll agree that it’s pretty easy to get to this song from the next piece of Ecclesiastes:

The one who loves silver is never satisfied with silver, and whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with income. This too is futile. When good things increase, the ones who consume them multiply; what, then, is the profit to the owner, except to gaze at them with his eyes? The sleep of the worker is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of the rich permits him no sleep.

Ecclesiastes 5:10-12

Kid Entrepreneurs

Two of my grandsons are getting ready to go to Kids’ Camp this week. In their shameless capitalism, they have a plan. They’ve gathered up and pooled their money and are set to hit Costco before they leave, buying a box of individual serving chips. We were doing the math a few minutes ago. The box contains 40 bags of chips. Each bag will cost about 30 cents, while they plan to sell them for a dollar. That’s 70 cents profit, or a total of $28 if they sell the whole box. Not bad when you’re 11 years old.

In talking this operation over with the boys, I tried to explain to them why they weren’t simply being shameless opportunists in making a profit through these sales. After all, they got the chips there, invested their money up front, and are taking the risk.

“What if somebody steals your chips?” I asked Uri. He twitched at that idea. Clearly he hadn’t thought of it, but, having gone to this camp twice before, he knew that security was pretty hard to come by. Now he’ll probably lie awake worrying about his “business” walking away from him as some bold 3rd-grader stuffs Doritos in his mouth.

I don’t think that Solomon is trying to tell us that doing whatever was the equivalent of selling chips at Kids’ Camp in 1,000 B.C. is always a foolish thing. Instead, I believe that he’s pointing out the peril attached to it and the short-sightedness of depending on it.

Getting in Tune

If you’re an O4C (Over 40 Christian), then you’ve probably long ago learned the truth to today’s verses. We want that shiny new car, but then we have a shiny new car to worry about. We want to buy our own house and stop wasting money on a rental, but then we take on all the risks, responsibilities, and worries that come with home ownership. We might want a more responsible job or our own business, but then we get to fulfill those responsibilities and fret about the hundred bad things that could happen to our business.

We could add many other sources of worries. Parents, children, and grandchildren provide a steady stream of concerns. Bo the Poodle is going to the vet school to get his virility checked this week. We just learned this morning that some unidentified predator killed one of our baby bunnies. It’s a mean old world, you know.

All of those things of this world–businesses, poodles, and bunnies–are blessings, but they are blessings that come with their own built-in worries. It’s foolish for us to chase after those things without awareness of the downside.

But we can pursue the blessing that has no downside.

Nothing New Under the Sun–Ecclesiastes 1:8-11

What is the point? I wake up and wash my face. I brush my teeth and apply deodorant. Sometimes I shave. Interestingly enough, a tube of toothpaste and a stick of deodorant both last me almost exactly four months. I’m not sure why I measured that, but I did. Shaving soap–I use a brush–will last for around 14 months. That suggests that I’ve been through 168 tubes of toothpaste in my life. The three cakes of shaving soap I have tucked in a bathroom drawer ought to just about be running out at my 60th birthday.

In the 31 years that I’ve been teaching college English, I’ve probably stood before more than 250 writing classes. Another 70 or 80 lie in my way before I retire. Each class has around 22 students, each of whom turns in four or five papers, papers reflecting the same sort of immature thought patterns and assumptions. Is it any wonder that I sometimes don’t spring out of bed in the morning?

Koheleth must have felt somewhat the same way in Ecclesiastes 1:8-11:

All things are wearisome,
more than anyone can say.
The eye is not satisfied by seeing
or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Can one say about anything,
“Look, this is new”?
It has already existed in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of those who came before;
and of those who will come after
there will also be no remembrance
by those who follow them.

As impatient as we can be when we are young, as we age we realize that life is long. Typically, that long life involves doing the same things day after day after day. It’s kind of like the movie Groundhog Day without Sonny and Cher singing on the alarm clock every morning.

“There’s nothing new under the sun.” That’s one of the more famous lines from Ecclesiastes, and all you have to do is turn on cable news to confirm the truth of this statement. The details may have changed but you’ll have the same sorts of people–often the exact same people–saying essentially the same things in response to nearly every supposed news item.

We watch TV and movies with the hope of seeing something new, but rarely do we find it. In fact, when things are truly new, truly surprising to such a degree that they delight us, it just underscores how numbingly the same most of what passes for entertainment can be. The same can be said for food and for music and for a host of other things.

But should we truly seek novelty? Is there anything wrong with the fact that there’s nothing new under the sun?

I think that what Koheleth tells us here is that our minds are not satisfied for long with the things that are under the sun. So if there is nothing new there, then we’ll wind up feeling like he does. The problem, I’d suggest, is that if we’re looking for our thrills “under the sun,” then we are bound to disappointment. We’ll keep adding new riches and new wives (I’m thinking of Solomon here) but still find nothing but a nagging sense that there ought to be something more.

And there is something more, but Ecclesiastes doesn’t want to address it directly.

More Out of Life than What?

As an English teacher, one of the phrases that I have known for a very long time is “unclear pronoun reference.” That’s when a pronoun in a sentence could refer to more than one antecedent. For example: “When I put the pizza in the oven, it was hot.” What was hot? It was! But was that the pizza, already hot before it went into the oven, or the oven, preheated and ready to go?

But besides unclear pronoun references, there are words that, while not pronouns, still do not mean quite as much as they are supposed to mean. Often they don’t mean as much as their speakers think they mean.

Case in point. I recently heard a song, “San Marcos,” by those masters of autotune, Brockhampton. At the end of the song, we hear a gospel choir singing “I want more out of life than this. I want more. I want more.” This lyric is repeating six times, meaning that choir expresses their desire for more a full eighteen times. Clearly they want more, and I would like to assist them in acquiring it.

But that’s where those imprecise words come in. First, there’s an unclear pronoun reference. I want more out of life than this. This. What, exactly, is “this”? Is it the singer’s relationships, community, job situation, philosophical underpinnings, cold ramen, or what? I have no idea of what “this” represents, and I rather guess that neither the London Community Gospel Choir (who sang on the recording) or the eight people who have writing credit for the song know.

Then there’s “more.” What does it mean to want “more” out of life? Since we can’t be at all sure of what “this” is, there’s not much hope of being able to identify “more.” Even if we could make that measurement, how much more is wanted? If what I have today is X, does the desire for more find itself satisfied with X+1 or does it require X+100? I’d really like to help, but when you use such fuzzy lyrics, I can’t know.

On the other hand, I think that the writers might be intentionally vague. They’re hoping to tap into an ill-defined sense of dissatisfaction and desire that inhabits their restless, adolescent audience. How many teen girls will hear “I want more from my life than this” and feel as if the song was written for them? “It’s like they know me!” those listeners will say.

Of course it isn’t just teen girls who “want more out of life than this.” We all have longings and restless feelings. Don’t we all want more, at least part of the time, for as long as we live? Jesus promised more to us in John 10:10. When we hear him promise life “in abundance,” we probably think something different than those who sing along to Brockhampton, but we also think something different from what God offers us.

Do you want more out of life than this? More than what you now enjoy? Perhaps you should, but perhaps what you really need is not what you really want.