Growing up in a devout Christian family I heard the stories of the great biblical heroes numerous times and could recite most of them by heart. It wasn’t until I was twelve, however, that I dedicated time to personally studying Sacred Scripture. Naturally, I was immediately drawn to the more exotic, and often overlooked, books; the “black sheep” of the canon. The first to grab my attention was Ecclesiastes, in which, to my great dismay, I read the following passage for the first time:
says the Teacher.
Everything is meaningless.”
What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.
All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.
All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.
No one remembers the former generations,
and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow them.
I had never read anything so dismal, despairing, and disturbing in my life. Don’t get me wrong, it was not as if this passage introduced me to concepts entirely foreign to my experience. To the contrary, I found the words of the Teacher disturbing precisely because they resonated with intuitions buried in the far reaches of my soul. They conjured impressions of reality I had held since my childhood but never wanted to face. They rekindled the sense of dread and futility engendered by the swamp; feelings which seemed incongruent with the cheerful Christian worldview so tenderly nurtured by my parents.
“I don’t understand this,” I thought, “Perhaps it’ll make more sense as I continue reading . . .” I pressed on through several more chapters hoping for better results but to no avail. In fact, things got worse: “Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals,” proclaims the Teacher, “the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.” This was the last straw! I slammed my bible shut and stormed downstairs to my father who sat unawares in the den. “What’s his problem?” I exclaimed in frustration, “why is this even in the Bible?”
Somewhat taken aback by my outburst, my father responded: “Josh . . . what are you talking about?” Realizing he hadn’t the faintest clue what I was ranting about, I took a deep breath and proceeded to voice my dissatisfaction with the Teacher. He listened patiently for several minutes and when, at last, I finished my diatribe he asked, “Have you finished reading it?” Sheepishly I responded, “Well . . . no.” “Read the whole thing,” he said, “then you’ll understand.”
This was not the answer I was looking for. Begrudgingly I walked back upstairs, picked up my Bible, and pressed forward. After reading the book all the way through . . . I still didn’t understand. The Teacher left too many questions unanswered. The resolution at the end, to “fear God and obey His commandments,” offered no consolation. I needed things to be black and white—clear and simple. The Teacher’s ideas were too discordant; too nebulous; too real. I wasn’t prepared to accept an existence devoid of meaning—yet, this is the world presented by the Teacher; a cold, fleeting, impersonal, purposeless, unjust, world, full of uncertainty.
As most of us do, however, I set these troubling thoughts aside and retreated back into the world of fantasy. I played video games, read Star War’s novels, and watched endless hours of T.V. But, one can only drown the nihilism out for so long . . .
An Encounter With Death
The one thing we can be absolutely sure of in this life is that everything living will die. Death surrounds us–it haunts us every second of every day–relentlessly pursuing us into the grave. At the very moment of our conception we begin our slow decent into dissolution and, in spite of all our efforts, there is nothing we can do to stop this from taking place. We have tried and shall continue to try—but to no avail. There is no escape from our temporality; from our profound limitedness.
Nevertheless, to dwell upon our finitude and impermanence – which death so robustly exemplifies – leads us quickly into the abyss of despair. And, despair, true despair, is incredibly unpopular in the West. This is one of the reasons we desensitize ourselves, by means of video games, movies, and other such contrivances, from the reality of death. We do this by transforming it into entertainment; by inoculating ourselves from the absurdity and pointlessness it engenders. We, as a society, are enamored by the mere “shadow” of death – to borrow from Plato’s famous analogy of the cave – which seems less frightening and, at times, even pleasurable. We dare not turn our gaze and face the reality which would be too much to bear. Our obsession with the mere idea of death allows us to transform it into something enjoyable or thrilling (e.g., Mortal Combat) or even sexually arousing (e.g.,Twilight). Hence, as a matter of profound irony, death has become the ideal distraction from death. That is, until the real thing is unwillingly thrust upon us.
I entertained mere phantasms of death until it slowly took my friend Travis . . .