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What brings that question to mind is that sadly cynical passage from Ecclesiastes a moment ago in combination with a motion picture that is currently making the rounds called "About Schmidt."(1) When we were in Florida a couple of weeks ago, one of our friends recommended it to us, so we went.
Interesting movie. It stars Jack Nicholson in a unique role, one which reviewers are raving about and saying he is a mortal lock to get an Academy Award nomination from it. He is Warren Schmidt, an actuary for the Woodmen of the World Insurance company, who is now retiring. We meet him on the momentous day. Sitting at his empty desk, with boxes neatly piled against the wall, he watches the clock as it tick-tocks to quitting time for the last time in his working life. Next we ride along on the rainy drive to the strip-mall steakhouse where his colleagues are giving him a party including a cake shaped like the insurance company's office building. He wakes up the next morning having no idea what lies ahead. He has spent his entire life working at a job that could have been done by anybody, or, apparently, nobody. He goes to the office, ostensibly to see if he can answer any questions that the new guy might have, but he has none, of course.
Now what? His wife of 42 years scrimped and saved enough to buy a 35-foot Winnebago in which they might travel the country now that retirement has arrived, but, unfortunately, she drops dead while cleaning the house. Now, Schmidt is really lost. No job. No wife. No family except a daughter in Denver from whom he has been somewhat estranged for years. Warren is desperate to find something meaningful in his thoroughly unimpressive life. He has nothing better to do, so he sets out for Colorado in the Winnebago in hope of bridging the gulf between himself and his daughter by arriving early to help with her wedding preparations.
Unfortunately, he hates the groom-to-be, a profoundly mediocre, underachieving waterbed salesman and pyramid scheme pitchman. To make matters worse, Warren is appalled by the free-spirited nature of his soon-to-be in-laws - here is a man who has hardly had a surprise in 40 years, now finding himself wrestling with a water bed, and joined in a hot tub by the topless and incredibly available mother of the groom. Schmidt grows swiftly convinced that his new purpose in life is to stop his daughter's marriage.
As this strange journey of discovery unfolds, Warren details his adventures and shares his observations in long, rambling letters to an unexpected new friend and confessor -- Ndugu Umbo, a six-year-old Tanzanian orphan who cannot possibly read, whom Schmidt sponsors for $22 a month through an organization that advertises on TV. From these letters filled with a lifetime of things unsaid, Warren begins - perhaps for the first time - to glimpse himself and the life he has lived. He finally comes to wonder about the question we raised a minute ago. If a person lives and dies and no one notices, if the world continues as it was, was that person ever really alive?
Of course, there is nothing new about such thoughts. The book from which we read earlier - Ecclesiastes - is, of all the books in the Bible, uniquely concerned with this question of the meaning of life.
Ecclesiastes is a small book (barely a dozen pages long in most editions) tucked away in the middle of the Old Testament. Most people are not very familiar with it, other than a few phrases they have heard here and there - "For everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven...There is nothing new under the sun...Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher, all is vanity" - those all come from Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes, by the way, is an English transliteration of a Latin translation of the Hebrew word Koheleth. Some places you will find it rendered as "preacher." In others, it will be "teacher" or "philosopher" or "sage." It is not a proper name but simply means "one who calls the assembly together." For our purposes, since so many of you are teachers, and since our more modern translation pew Bible renders it thus, this morning we will call our man Ecclesiastes "Teacher."
One other note. That line, "vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, all is vanity" is right at the beginning of the book and sets the tone for the entire work. Please understand that the word "vanity" here does not mean the conceited smugness that modern Americans associate with the term. "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity" is an Elizabethan English phrase that would better be translated for the 21st century as our New International Version has it, "Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless."(2) On and on, that theme is repeated through twelve chapters. It is the work of an angry, cynical, skeptical man who doubts that there is permanent value in anything. Have you ever wondered about that?
We must give the ancient Teacher credit though. Despite his opening hypothesis that there is nothing in this life that has any enduring worth, he at least tests his theory. He decides to see if wisdom and knowledge will do the trick and resolves to become the wisest in the world, but he notes that both the wise and the fool end up dead, so why bother. He checks to see if pleasure will offer meaning to life so he gives himself all the wine, women and song he can stand, but finds they just wear him out. Wealth? Power? To paraphrase Jesus, the Teacher thinks "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and leave a rich widow?" The Teacher had everything - Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous - all he could have ever wanted, but it was not enough. Meaningless, meaningless, life is meaningless.
Is It? Is life worth living? One of the classics of world literature, the dramatic poem Faust, focuses on the question of life's meaning, it's enduring significance and satisfaction.(3) If you recall the story you remember that Dr. Faust, the hero, is a middle-aged scholar and scientist who has just about given up hope that he will ever learn the true meaning of life. He has begun to fear that he will come to the end of his span on this earth honored and well educated, but without ever having experienced what it means to be truly alive. So he makes a desperate deal with the devil, promising his soul in the hereafter in exchange for just one moment on earth so fulfilling that he will be moved to say, "Let this moment linger, it is so good."
By way of background, Johann von Goethe, the author of the play, spent his whole life writing Faust. He intended it to be his major statement about the meaning of life, the enduring literary masterpiece which would give his own life meaning. He began writing the script at the age of 20, set it aside for other projects, then went back to it at age 40 (part of his own mid-life crisis perhaps), and finished it shortly before his death at age 83. While we cannot be sure how old Goethe was when he wrote any particular line, it is fascinating to see how the hero's ideas of what he wants to do with his life change from the start of the story to its end.
At the beginning of the play, the middle-aged Faust as pictured by the young Goethe wants to experience everything, to live without limits. He wants to read all the books, speak all the languages, taste all the pleasures. So the devil gives him everything - wealth, political power, the ability to travel anywhere and be loved by any woman he desires. Faust does it all and he is still not happy. However much wealth he acquires, however many women he seduces, there is an unsatisfied hunger with him. Sounds like Ecclesiastes.
By the time we come to the end of the play, Goethe is in his 80's and his hero Faust has aged along with him. Instead of winning fights and attracting women, Faust is hard at work building dikes to reclaim land from the sea for people to live and work on. Instead of being consumed with the pursuit of pleasure and power, he is interested in people. Now, finally, Faust can say, "Let this moment linger, it is so good."
This, I think, is where our old Teacher went wrong. For all his interest in the search for life's meaning, he never takes seriously the fact that he is not all by himself. There were others with whom he rubbed shoulders day-in and day-out who could have insured that his life would have meaning simply through his care and concern for them. I remember a song we sang in our high school chorus:
No man stands alone;
Each man's joy is joy to me;
Each man's grief is my own.
We need one another;
We NEED one another. If you recall the story of creation
from the first chapter of Genesis, you will remember the litany
of "and God created this, and it was good...and God created that,
and it was good," and so on. It only takes until the second
chapter of Genesis for us to find something that is NOT good -
"and God said, `It is not good for the man to be alone.'"(4) No
man, no woman, no boy, no girl, is an island.
1. New Line Cinema, 2002
2. Ecclesiastes 1:2, NIV
3. Harold Kushner, When All You've Ever Wanted Isn't Enough, (New York: Summit Books, 1986), pp. 47-48
4. Genesis 2:18
5. Quoted by Martin Marty in Context, June 1, 1990
6. New York: Villard Books, 1990, p. 6
7. Kushner, p. 43