Letting Death Help Us Live
So much of the message of the book of Ecclesiastes is “the Preacher” (Ecclesiastes 1:1) helping us to let the reality of our death sink into our bones and lodge itself deep in our hearts. But that’s because he’s writing a book about what it means to live. He wants the consequences of our fast-approaching disappearance from the earth to work their way out into all the realities of the way we see the world and the way we view ourselves within that world. The single question that animates him is this: If we won’t live forever, or even long enough to make a lasting difference to the world, how then should we live?
Accepting death is the first step in learning to live.
At the outset, Ecclesiastes 1:1–11 sketches a very basic point: accepting death is the first step in learning to live. Wise people simply accept that they are going to die. This point may seem so obvious as to be simplistic. But, in fact, it’s highly significant when we stop and think about how much energy we devote to not accepting it.
The reality is, we spend our lives trying to escape the constraints of our created condition. Opening our eyes to this is a significant breakthrough. To be human is to be a creature, and to be a creature is to be finite. We are not God. We are not in control, and we will not live forever. We will die. But we avoid this reality by playing “let’s pretend.”
Let’s pretend that if we get the promotion, or see our church grow, or bring up good children, we’ll feel significant and leave a lasting legacy behind us. Let’s pretend that if we change jobs, or emigrate to the sun, we won’t experience the humdrum tedium and ordinariness of life. Let’s pretend that if we move to a new house, we’ll be happier and will never want to move again. Let’s pretend that if we end one relationship and start a new one, we won’t ever feel trapped.
Let’s pretend that if we were married, or weren’t married, we would be content. Let’s pretend that if we had more money, we would be satisfied. Let’s pretend that if we get through this week’s pile of washing and dirty diapers and shopping lists and school runs and busy evenings, next week will be quieter. Let’s pretend that time is always on our side to do the things we want to do and become the people we want to be. Let’s pretend we can break the cycle of repetition and finally arrive in a world free from weariness.
We long for change in a world of permanent repetition, and we dream of how to interrupt it. We long for lives of permanence in a world of constant change, and we strive to achieve it. We spend our lives aligning our better selves with a different future that we envisage as more rewarding.
And in it all we are simply trying to make permanent what is not meant to be permanent (us), and by constant change we are trying to control what is not meant to be controlled (the world). The seasons and natural cycles of the world are content to come and go, but we sweat and toil to make believe that it will not be so with us.
The Built-In Repetitiveness of Life
Ecclesiastes urges us to put this behind us once and for all and adopt a better way of thinking. Stop playing “let’s pretend” and instead let history and the created world be our teachers. Think about the generations who lived before us. Look at the tides and the seasons and the patterns that God has stitched into the very fabric of creation.
Things repeat themselves over and over and over again, and so it is time to learn that life has a repetitiveness built into it which we are not meant to try to escape. The very rhythms of the world are a pointer to what it means to be part of the created order as a human being. Stop thinking that meaning and happiness and satisfaction reside in novelty. What is new is not really new, and what feels new will soon feel old.
C. S. Lewis captured the essence of this point in his book The Screwtape Letters. A senior devil, Screwtape, is writing to his junior devil nephew, Wormwood, with advice on how to get Christians to turn away from the Enemy (God). Screwtape counsels Wormwood on humanity’s constant desire to experience something new:
The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart—an endless source of heresies in religion, folly in counsel, infidelity in marriage, and inconstancy in friendship.
God has made change and newness pleasurable to human beings. But, says Screwtape, because God does not want his creatures “to make change, any more than eating, an end in itself, He has balanced the love of change in them by a love of permanence.”
Balancing Novelty and Permanence
Change and constancy are the two balancing weights on the seesaw of human experience, and God has given humanity the means to enjoy both of them by patterning the world with rhythm. We love the fact that springtime feels new; we love the fact that it is springtime again. And the Devil goes to work right at this point.
Now just as we pick out and exaggerate the pleasure of eating to produce gluttony, so we pick out this natural pleasantness of change and twist it into a demand for absolute novelty. This demand is entirely our workmanship. If we neglect our duty, men will be not only contented but transported by the mixed novelty and familiarity of snowdrops this January, sunrise this morning, plum pudding this Christmas. Children, until we have taught them better, will be perfectly happy with a seasonal round of games in which conkers succeed hopscotch as regularly as autumn follows summer. Only by our incessant efforts is the demand for infinite, or unrhythmical, change kept up.
This is exactly what the Preacher wants us to spot. Where we are unsatisfied with the rhythmical repetition of our lives, it is because we are pretending that things should not be like this for us as human beings.
To want infinite change—in other words, to “gain” something—is to want to escape the confines of ordinary existence and somehow arrive in a world where, on the one hand, repetition does not occur and, on the other, permanence for our lives does. But neither is possible. As we search for something new under the sun, so we are searching for absolute novelty, and it does not exist: “The pleasure of novelty is by its very nature more subject than any other to the law of diminishing returns.”
The Freedom of Accepting Death
When you think that at last you’ve made a decisive change in your circumstances, you will soon want to change something else. Whatever it is you think you’ve gained, it will soon vanish from the earth like morning mist, and you along with it too. Part of learning to live is simply accepting this. One day you will be dead and gone, and the world will go on, probably without even remembering you. A hundred years after your death, the chances are, no one will ever know you lived.
If this depresses you, there’s still a lot to learn about why this is actually a freeing reality. But if it cracks a wry smile on your face, you’re halfway to happiness. For the Preacher is going to show us what we should, and should not, expect out of life. He is not just saying there’s no gain after we’ve chased the wind; he will insist there’s no need for the chase in the first place. There is no gain to be had under the sun, and that’s precisely the point.
None need be sought.
1. C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (London: Fount, 1982), 107.
This post is adapted from Living Life Backward by David Gibson.
- What Happens after Death (and before Resurrection) (Kim Riddlebarger)
- Did You Know that the Bible Commands Us to Eat, Drink, and Be Merry? (David Gibson)
- How to Face the Death of Someone You Love (Elisabeth Elliot)