If you think about it, we spend our lives trying to escape the constraints of our created condition. Opening our eyes to this reality 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.”
World of Repetition
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. 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 we envisage as more rewarding.
In it all we try to make permanent what is not meant to be permanent (us), and by constant change we try to control what is not meant to be controlled (the world). The world’s seasons and natural cycles are content to come and go, but we sweat and toil to make-believe it won’t be so with us.
Ecclesiastes urges us to put this fantasy 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 fabric of creation itself.
Things repeat themselves over and over and over again, so it’s time to learn that life has a built-in repetitiveness we aren’t meant to try to escape. The very rhythms of the world point 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’s 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 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.
Pleasure in Newness
God has made change and newness pleasurable to human beings. But, Screwtape says, because God doesn’t 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.”
Change and constancy are the two balancing weights on the seesaw of human experience, and God has given humanity the means to enjoy both by patterning the world with rhythm. We love that springtime feels new; we love that it’s springtime again. And the Devil goes to work right at this point. Screwtape explains:
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 of Ecclesiastes wants us to spot. Where we’re unsatisfied with the rhythmical repetition of our lives, it’s because we’re pretending 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 doesn’t occur and, on the other, permanence does.
But neither is possible.
As we search for something new under the sun, we search for absolute novelty, which doesn’t exist. As Screwtape reminds us, “The pleasure of novelty is by its very nature more subject than any other to the law of diminishing returns.”
When you think you’ve made a decisive change in your circumstances at last, 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. Part of learning to live is simply accepting this reality.
The Preacher in Ecclesiastes teaches us what we should—and should not—expect out of life. He’s not just saying there’s no gain after we’ve chased the wind; he’s insisting there’s no need for the chase in the first place. There’s no ultimate gain to be had under the sun, and that’s precisely the point.
None need be sought.