I grew up in Northern California, and in some ways, still think of it as home. I’ve actually lived more years in Southern California, but still don’t feel entirely at home here, not even after 30 years. Maybe it’s just nostalgia for the past–it’s not as if I really believe that moving back to Northern California would do the trick.
But one of the most annoying things about living in the Los Angeles area is the traffic. That complaint is a culturally acceptable way to begin a conversation around here. One person says in exasperation, “Can you believe the traffic this morning???” And the other is supposed to say, “Oh, I know! I was almost late for work myself!” And then they both nod in commiseration and go back to whatever they were doing. It’s almost like a cultic ritual.
I live over 30 miles from my office, so I usually anticipate a commute of between 40 and 60 minutes, sometimes longer. Fortunately, I have a somewhat flexible schedule, so I can usually manage to dodge most cases of honest-to-goodness gridlock. Usually–but not always.
In the most recent experience of gridlock that I remember, I was carpooling with my colleagues Jim and Mari. Mari was driving. That morning, a tanker of asphalt had spilled its load on the eastbound side of the freeway, shutting it down, while the gawkers on the westbound side made it slow going for everyone commuting in the other direction.
By the time the afternoon drive home arrived, the mess still hadn’t been cleaned up. Eastbound commuters–thousands upon thousands of us–had to use surface streets instead of the freeway to get home. Local neighborhoods which were usually quiet were clogged with cars. People could hardly get out of their own driveways just to go buy a carton of milk, or pick up their kids from school. That day, it took us over 3 hours to get home. By that time, we were all a little punchy.
Every once in a while, the massive absurdity of it all comes rushing in on me. Here I am, sitting in a contraption of metal and plastic, spewing fumes, trying to get from point A to point B. I’m surrounded by thousands of others who are trying to do the same. None of us seems to be going anywhere. All of us are frustrated. And tomorrow, we’ll get up and do it again.
It’s madness. I anesthetize myself to the absurdity by drowning it out with music, or occupying my mind with recorded lectures and sermons. Or, like everyone else, I simply shrug my shoulders and say, “That’s life.” But is it ever OK to ask why life should be like that?
I’m reminded of these words:
Perfectly pointless, says the Teacher, perfectly pointless. Everything is pointless. What do people gain from all the hard work that they work so hard at under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains as it always has. The sun rises, the sun sets; it returns panting to the place where it dawns. The wind blows to the south, goes around to the north; around and around blows the wind; the wind returns to its rounds again. All streams flow to the sea, but the sea is never full; to the place where the rivers flow, there they continue to flow (Eccl 1:3-7, CEB).
Qoheleth, or “the Teacher” (traditionally identified as Solomon, though the majority of contemporary scholars dispute this), has taken a long, hard look at life, and found it utterly absurd. Life is a never-ending cycle of empty repetition. Nothing ever changes, not in any meaningful sense. The sun rises, the alarm goes off. We get in our smog-belching vehicles and crawl like a gigantic parade of ants down the freeway to jobs we probably wouldn’t do, given a choice. The sun sets, and we drop into bed. Then another day dawns, and we begin again. It’s like the wind, blowing in circles, moving but never really going anywhere.
Depressing, isn’t it?
Some read Qoheleth as an ancient forerunner to Sartre’s hopeless existentialism, but that, I think, would be an exaggeration. There are moments of hope and transcendence in the book; wisdom is still valued, God still exists. And in the end, we are given this final word:
So this is the end of the matter; all has been heard. Worship God and keep God’s commandments because this is what everyone must do. God will definitely bring every deed to judgment, including every hidden thing, whether good or bad (Eccl 12:13-14, CEB).
Scholars take this as a final commentary inserted by an editor. Some read it as an attempt to rescue religion from skepticism. But others read it as a fair summary of the divine reality that’s been lurking beneath the text all along. Yes, it’s true: there is much to life on this earth, to life “under the sun,” that is patently absurd. But that’s not a description of life per se, but a way of living that attempts to find some sense of ultimate meaning apart from God, apart from the one who created life in the first place. Seen this way, even the seemingly ominous message of judgment with which Ecclesiastes ends can be taken as a blessing in disguise–because divine judgment means that what we do in this life matters.
As Peggy Lee once wondered in song, “Is that all there is?” To some extent, our earthly lives will always have something of the endless repetition of days to it, the deadening routine. I’ve had jobs that made me want to cry out “Vanity, vanity!” every time the alarm clock went off. And even the best and most fulfilling of careers must have its moments of drudgery and grunt work, like the committees that meet for countless hours without seeming to accomplish anything of significance. And nothing, I think, will ever make me believe that gridlock is anything but absurd. A necessary absurdity? Perhaps–but absurd nonetheless.
But no, Peggy, that’s not all there is. Our lives don’t just go around and around in circles, because they’ve been taken up into a dramatic movement of history that has God as its author. That story is moving inexorably toward its glorious conclusion. And the gospel invitation to take part in that adventure gives life meaning.
Sometimes, the daily routine makes us forget. We get busy and bothered; we feel like we’re spinning our wheels and wonder what the point of it all could possibly be. And the world will constantly tempt us to believe that meaning is to be found in someone or something other than God: the pursuit of happiness, fame and fortune, or just plain pleasure.
Qoheleth knows better, and so should we. And when we possess the kind of biblical imagination that keeps us firmly planted in God’s ongoing story of healing and redemption, even the necessary moments of drudgery may take on a whole new significance.