Making Meaning

“Meaningless, meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” So says the author of the book of Ecclesiastes, and not just once. Of the five dozen times this phrase of futility is used within the corpus of the Jewish Scriptures, the writer of Ecclesiastes employs it half of those times. Pleasure, success, money, dreams of a better life: All of these are utterly useless.

Based on this conclusion, how can a person live a life of purpose? What reason is there for existence? How does one not slide into hopelessness, outright despair, giving up any chance of happiness? These questions, ironically, are exactly the ones that Ecclesiastes answers, because the book is honest about the situation in which humanity finds itself.

What is the situation? Largely, there is no meaning to be found “out there somewhere.” There is no coming utopia in this life, no perfect religion, politic, ideology, or moral code that will sort out the senselessness of the world. Like all before and after us, we get this brief time to “strut and fret our hour upon the stage” knowing that, “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (as another wise writer once said).

Consequently, it is up to the ones doing the living – up to us – to enter the absurdity, to see the world for how it really is, and to make meaning of it all. This isn’t unlike the work of a blacksmith who can transform rough iron – ugly and useless – into something beneficial, even beautiful. But this is hard work, for only by means of fire and forge, by striking ceaseless blows to superheated elements, and by sweat and long hours can any meaning be made.

Yet, I think that’s what a lot of us are attempting to do, especially in these recent chaotic months. We are attempting to work it out, asking, “How can there be a good God when this is such an evil world? How can we hold to hope when everything appears so ridiculous? How do we keep the faith when nothing seems to matter?” There are no easy answers to such questions, and no answers whatsoever that haven’t been tested by furnace and anvil.

The writer of Ecclesiastes, in the burning and battering of his own cynicism, found an answer he could live with in the end. He says, repeatedly throughout his composition, that the happiest life is made the simplest of ways: “Eat and drink with joy; do work that gives you satisfaction; and live happily with the ones you love.”

Do I believe that there is more to life than these things – more than food, drink, work, and love? Of course, but not much more, because all of life comes down to a few necessary ingredients. If you have good food and drink, have work you believe in, and have the love of a partner, family, or friends, you have received true gifts from God, and you’re already living the most meaningful life possible.