Ever since the COVID-19 crisis began, we have been thrown into a surreal world of bio-political theater. Words like “quarantine” and “lockdown” became part of our everyday lexicon. Now, things have devolved into an even further absurdity with things like “vaccine passports,” “vaccine mandates,” and the ongoing and burdensome presence of masks. The United States in particular has been rigid, strict, and quite illogical (not to mention un-scientific) about mask usage, especially when it comes to children.
In the midst of all these issues that already are beginning to induce boredom, we still hear from Anthony Fauci—that most unscientific of scientists—re-telling the same old story from last year about whether we would be “allowed” to see our families and friends during the Christmas holidays (he somewhat backtracked that statement with a heaping pile of vague “ifs,” “buts,” and “howevers”).
As the drama of biopolitical theater continues to drive itself to Nowhereville, people are going through immense depression, anxiety, alienation, and most of all, fear. Some are still terrified of COVID-19, others of the regime’s growing totalitarian powers. Both sides claim that “the country’s going to hell,” although, it would appear, we’re already there.
But, as I have written on many occasions in American Greatness, are we truly in the midst of tyranny or is it just the appearance of it? Does the regime really have that much power? Certainly, we’re seeing awful firings of health workers in many states because they are refusing to take the vaccine. This is a real-life consequence. Will they be back or are their lives completely ruined?
As I’m both living through this, and observing the absurd events, I couldn’t help but think of one of the Wisdom Books in the Old Testament, Qohelet (also known as Ecclesiastes). Robert Alter, one of the most respected translators and commentators on the Old Testament, observed that “Qohelet is in some ways the most peculiar book of the Hebrew Bible.” Although the author retains the tradition of previous Hebrew literature, in other ways, “Qohelet’s maxims are subversive in content,” but also very practical. Alter notes that mostly, however, the author’s “observations are properly philosophic, inviting us to contemplate the cyclical nature of reality and human experience, the fleeting duration of all that we cherish, the brevity of life, and the inexorability of death, which levels all things.”
Sounds rather depressing, doesn’t it? Not necessarily. We have become a society that is incapable of understanding the meaning of tragedy (and by implication also, the meaning of comedy). Like a bunch of nihilists, the more we run away from death, the more we hurl into it, all the while not comprehending the question (forget the answer!) of where do we human beings fit into this strange drama of life.
Almost everyone will recognize some of the lines contained in Qohelet: “vanity of vanities” and “there is nothing new under the sun.” But do we really look closely at it, trying to understand what it all means? Alter offers us a far better translation of the second verse that is usually written as “vanity of vanities”: “Merest breath, said Qohelet, merest breath. All is mere breath.” The text continues with similar tone: “What gain is there for man in all his toil that he toils under the sun./A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth endures forever . . . That which was is that which will be, and that which was done is that which will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.”
There is a great sense in the text of life’s fleeting moments. It is true that time passes and that there is nothing we can do about that. But do we really ask what the meaning of that short time on Earth is? How should we live our lives, and in accordance with what? If indeed all is toil, then shouldn’t we ask what we are toiling for? Are we just slouching toward the absurdity of existence or are we seeking life’s creativity? Absurdity will always find us but that doesn’t mean that we ought to seek it deliberately. Breath vanishes quickly, but breath has another existential side to it, namely the one that involves the beginning of life.
With each breath, we also begin anew, and each moment can be filled with meaning, despite the toxic and evil powers that try to take hold of our lives (as we are witnessing today). If we think that life is only filled with superficial happiness or an overbearing dystopia, then we are missing the complexity of human condition and experience. We do need to ask one question: are we creators or are we destroyers? This is a crucial distinction that is implied in Qohelet, and certainly something quite relevant today.
In many ways, it is truly inhuman to be hopeless. We convince ourselves that in times of darkness, our conduct is irrelevant. If nothing matters, then neither do our actions. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. During the war that I’ve lived through, it was even more important to remain grounded in faith and ethics, and awareness that what we do, seek, and throw into the world determines and defines who we are (not only for the time being but also into the future).
The same can be said of our present crisis. It’s easy to wallow in despair and, after all, we human beings are flawed and imperfect. Despair finds us and saps the last of strength that we have. Suddenly, it appears that there is no exit. But this is despair’s biggest lie—that we have no strength or that we can’t find strength in God. It matters what we do, and as the great existential philosopher, Albert Camus, said, “We all carry within us our places of exile, our crimes and our ravages. But our task is not to unleash them on the world; it is to fight them in ourselves and others.”
Understanding and accepting that toil and death are inevitable should paradoxically give us hope and gratitude. The great traditions tell us that as much as we toil, there are also glimpses of enjoyment. Even the author of Qohelet allows for this: “ . . . light is sweet, and it is good for the eyes to see the sun. Should man live many years, let him rejoice in all of them, and let him recall the days of darkness, for they will be many.” Life is fleeting, and what matters is a recognition of the other person and his or her humanity.
Another great lie of despair is that we are utterly alone. Many forms of anti-life (such as social media’s toxifying information overload) perpetuate that lie. But as the great poet, Czesław Miłosz put it, “I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard, as are all men and women living at the same time, whether they are aware of it or not.” It’s important to remember one is never alone, and what constitutes life is the possibility of being.