The King James Version of the Bible translates a phrase in the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes "and that was vanity and a vexation of the spirit". That phrase was never clear in my mind until I read other translations such as The Living Bible and the New International Version which read "And that was like chasing the wind".
The writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes tells how he tried all the things which in his time were thought to be fun and fulfilling. Then, one by one, he dismisses each experience with a phrase that runs like a thread through the whole book, "and that was like chasing the wind".
Most of us can identify with much of what he wrote. I can. Change the names, dates, and places and it is our story too. We have all spent more time than we would like to admit chasing things we thought we wanted, and actively avoiding things we thought we didn't need. We have grabbed for handfuls of nothing and pursued things we did not really want. And so much of it has turned out to be like chasing the wind--or worse. Is there a way to redirect our energy from blind running to reflective waiting?
We can hear his disappointment at the end of each frustrating experience. We can sense the emotional and spiritual woundedness each time some grand experiment left the writer of Ecclesiastes feeling empty. We can hear his disappointment at the end of each frustrating experience Yet he was persistent and stubborn. He tried it all. All of us who have lived very long understand that. We have been there. Some of us are still there.
Insight tends to come slowly. Very few people get to see a blinding light on the road to Damascus. We keep trying the same things over and over, expecting to get a different result, until it finally dawns on us --as it did the author of Ecclesiastes -- that we have been looking for meaning in all the wrong places--just chasing the wind.
The writer of Ecclesiastes leaves us with the pervading feeling that it is important to stand up to life courageously and reach for whatever joy and happiness circumstances may offer at a given time, but that this should not be regarded as the central purpose of life. We need not be overwhelmed by failure and defeat, for this is a common experience of humankind, nor should we become arrogant or vain in our successes, for these too are temporary.
The wise man of Ecclesiastes warns of the folly of running from reality by chargng after things that do not really matter. An endless round of trivial activity on a broad front almost always denotes a subconscious flight from something about life in general and oneself in particular. Likewise, any myopic focus, even though viewed by modern society as ambition, can be another way of running, another way of chasing the wind. Sam Keen, in his autobiography entitled, "Beginnings without End", succinctly reminds us that "in any flight from reality, he who runs fastest gets nowhere first".
God help us when we begin to catch up with some of the things we are chasing. During the Depression my brothers and I used to build our own toys and make up our own games. We loved catching butterflies, lightening bugs, and all sorts of flying creatures. One day we were in the backyard chasing bumble bees. Our father had warned us to look carefully to see that any bumble bee we caught had a white spot on its head else it would sting. As we chased bumble bees all over the backyard, one buzzed by my brother, who grabbed at the bee, but missed. I caught him, but forgot to see if the bee had a white spot on his head. I suspect there never was a bumble bee held in captivity by a small boy for a shorter period of time! And the sound of my turning him loose could be heard for a mile. God help us when we catch some of the things we chase.
In the absence of a cohesive center in our personal lives, we tend to direct our attention to marginal matters. If God is not the center of our lives then we are likely to be consumed with trivial pursuits, some of which may be good, but not the best. We are like the modern cowboy in Texas who got up out on the range each morning and cooked his breakfast on a Coleman Stove. One morning he made coffee first, like any good cowboy, but ran out of gas before he could cook bacon. Not wanting to go without this important part of his breakfast, he struck a match, lighted the thin dry grass on the ground and followed the fire with his skillet of bacon. When his bacon was done he was a half-mile from his coffee. It is easy to get too far from the main thing.
We have all been there. Some of us will die with, if not from, some of the things we have chased and unfortunately caught while leaving the main thing behind. Learning to stay close to the central purpose of life and learning to turn loose some of the things we have chased and caught are essential ingredients of maturation and fulfillment.
Can we find a way to get loose from the things we have chased and caught, which have made us miss the main meaning of life? Can we find the courage and strength to turn and face the things from which we have been running? It won't be easy, but it is possible. And, trust me, it is worth the effort.
More on this subject next week. Stay tuned.