Vanity, Futility, Meaninglessness–Ecclesiastes 1:2

I wasn’t raised in a barn, but I live in one now. As I write this, I’m in the basement of a 110-year-old dairy barn, in the area where Fred Redburn used to milk his cows. Fred owned 80 acres of what is now suburban Independence, Missouri. His cows ranged from the present 35th to 39th Streets. That takes us back more than 100 years. If we go back 200 years, this land was most likely wooded. Missouri statehood lay two years in the future and no one had laid claim to this tract.

Today, although the barn is still standing strong, the rest of that 80 acres is dotted with several dozen houses, mostly built in the 1970s. The cows are long dead, and whatever milk they produced has been used up. All of the work that good craftsmen and laborers put in on this property has mostly faded into faint memory. That takes us back to Ecclesiastes.

“Absolute futility,” says the Teacher.
“Absolute futility. Everything is futile.”

That’s how the Christian Standard Bible renders Ecclesiastes 1:2. Others have gone different directions: “Meaningless!” (NIV), “Vanity of vanities” (KJV), “Nothing makes sense!” (CEV), “Pointless” (ISV), among others. That famous King James “Vanity of vanities follows the Hebrew, which employs a common biblical pattern of forming a superlative (the most extreme comparison) by saying “Song of songs” or “King of kings.” In other words, this “vanity” is the most “vanity-like” of all vanities.

But what on earth is vanity in this sense? Does it relate to somebody who is thinking way too highly of themselves? Is it that person who has to constantly coif their hair? Is it a piece of furniture with a mirror attached? None of our common usages of “vanity” capture the 1611 use of the word.

The Hebrew word, hebel, means, literally, vapor or breath. The metaphorical use of it is fairly easy to see. Like a vapor of condensation from my breath on a cold morning, anything that is a hebel will quickly fade away.

As I get older, I recognize that my works, for the most part, do not last very long. When I mow the grass, it immediately begins growing again. When I change my car’s oil, it will need changing again in a few months. And that car will, despite my best efforts at maintenance, eventually cease being useful. My most clever teaching ideas from the beginning of my career are useless today. My blog posts are read by a handful of people and then quickly forgotten. My improvements from diet and exercise, if not maintained, will quickly fade and even if they are maintained will gradually, as I age, disappear as my end is in the grave.

So we can see the futility of human life. Maybe I pass on good things to my children. That’s worthwhile, but they’re going to die eventually also. Everything and everyone is destined for death and decay. Futility, vanity, meaninglessness!

Ecclesiastes has introduced a demoralizing thesis statement. We have to ask ourselves why this book is in the Bible. But that’s a question for another day. For today, we should just reflect on the many futile things that make up our lives.

Enduring Vanity

Vanitas PaintingRecently, I shared a few thoughts about the fleeting nature of human beauty, looking at 17th century Vanitas paintings and everyone’s favorite retired body builder, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Rather than thinking further about Arnold, I’d like to revisit that painting for a moment, looking a bit more closely.

Take a look at the painting. Go ahead and click on it to get a bigger version. I’ll wait.

Remember that the idea of the vanitas painting was to play out the ideas of Ecclesiastes on the vanity of human endeavors. We all die, after all–which is the big, unsubtle message of the skull–and most anything we do is just vanity, just meaningless.

But is that the whole story? I suggested in the previous post that the purpose of the violin in this painting was to evoke the strains of music that are played and then fade away. Look, though, at what lies under the violin and the skull. That appears to be printed music. A song played today will fade away quickly, but a piece of music preserved in musical notation can be preserved for generations. Some of the hymns of the church have been sung for generations. Isn’t that a slight taste of cheating mortality?

Then look over to the left of the painting and the shiny ball. What is that? It looks like a giant pinball, but is, I believe, a convex mirror. A mirror can certainly be a symbol of vanity and the fleeting nature of things, but look at this particular mirror. What do you see? That’s apparently the image of the artist captured in the midst of creating the canvas. Although dead for more than 300 years, Pieter Claesz achieved a tiny bit of immortality by painting himself into that mirror and a bigger one through the enduring value of his paintings.

Besides reminding us of the folly of things that perish, the Vanitas paintings also underscore the value of those things that last. As I write this, I just finished watching the Kansas City Royals play a baseball game. Time well spent? I’d have to chalk that one up in the “meaningless” column, along with the overripe fruit and soon-to-wilt flowers. It is my hope that most of my time is passed on things that will have more enduring value than that.

We have each been allotted a certain number of days on this earth. We can pass them in pursuits that are meaningless or those that are meaningful. More than likely, we’ll have some in each category. But how is your day to be spent today? Which of the Vanitas painting’s messages will your day tell? That’s a question we should ask ourselves each time we roll out of or into bed.

Keep Your Eyes Where They Belong

2015 Rock the ParkwayTwice on Wednesday, I was told, “You’re looking really great” by two widely separated women. One of them has been a friend for many years. The is someone from my church whose husband I know much better. In neither case did I think they were suggesting anything beyond a simple and sincere compliment, but these comments got me thinking.

Perhaps you were not aware of this, but taking care of your body will typically make it look better. It’s true. And whether you like it or not, somebody who sees you working out might just see something in you that you’d not intended. It’s pretty hard to be around a bunch of fit people and not notice their bodies, right?

An article by Jonathan Angelilli takes on this problem in a big way. He points to what he calls the “pornification” of fitness, in which the fitness instructor becomes less an instructor and more an object of desire.

Your fitness can never be outsourced to a hot trainer, doctor, or pill. It’s you that must do it, from the inside out. It’s the very nature of the beast. That is why “the source of all power comes from within” is one of the core principles of TrainDeep. Saying “you do it for me, I’ll pay extra” just doesn’t work when it comes to organic systems and nature. Here we can experience the definitive limits of trying to monetize the natural and spiritual realms.

Certainly not everything in Angelilli’s article is something I can support, but he raises a great point. My work at improving or maintaining my body should be about making myself more fit for service and, as an added bonus, making me more appealing to my spouse. That’s really it.

So if you run into me at the gym or out on the street, just keep your eyes to yourself. I can’t help it if I’m looking really good.

Do I Really Want to Be Shredded?

Muscle BoyI recently ran across an article in Men’s Fitness that promised to show me ways to “Stay Shredded All Season Long.” While the article, which was cobbled together as answers to single questions asked of five different fitness experts–leftovers from five different interviews perhaps?–seemed to have some useful advice, I had to question the overall premise. Do I really want to be “shredded”?

One of the questions asks for the best exercises for training the abs. The expert says, in part:

The best way to keep your abs conditioned all year round is to follow a healthy diet with a close eye on slightly restricting your starchy carb intake like breads, pastas, etc.

Do you notice a problem there? This guy doesn’t mention any exercises here. To be fair, he goes on to talk about exercises, but the fact that he starts out talking about starchy food suggests that he’s more interested in appearance than in actual strength. Does a layer of belly fat really have anything to do with the strength of your abdominal muscles? Can’t you have incredible strong abs while maintaining a few extra pounds of flab around the middle? And is that really a great burden to fitness.

The question here is what we supposed to be fit for. Is fitness a purely cosmetic thing? Does the fit person need to look like a Greek statue? Or is fitness found in the ability to do the things that we want to do?

Frankly, I don’t need to be shredded.