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Vanity of Vanities?? [An Existential Crisis for Christmas]

A little while ago, sparked by something I was reading or thinking, I said aloud to God, “Where are you these days, in my life?” It wasn’t really a prayer. Just a simple question, to which I really didn’t expect an answer.

A few days later, I had forgotten I’d asked.

Then I found myself sitting in my comfy chair reading the Book of Ecclesiastes with my morning coffee. I tend to do this occasionally. Read entire books of the Bible in one sitting. (This is nothing noble, by the way. It’s the same slice of my character that drives me to eat the entire bag of Doritos once I open it. I like to finish what I start, whatever it is.)

Anyway…

I put my feet up and settle in to the familiar drama of a man on the quest for meaning. I sip my coffee while he tries one means after another of finding fulfillment, only to conclude each in turn is “vanity of vanities”, which a helpful footnote informs me means a vapor. Something as insubstantial as bubbles, floating tenuously and bursting at the slightest touch. I read of his almost casual uncertainty about anything and everything. “Who knows what happens after we die?” he writes. “Who knows if the spirit of man rises up or goes down into the earth like the beasts?” His unapologetic assertion: “In a world so full of blatant contradictions, nonsense, and injustice, how can we truly know anything at all?”

My mind is skating leisurely figure-8’s as I read the familiar pages. I’ve read them many times before.

But then something new stands out to me. “For a man to work hard, and to find enjoyment in his work: this is the gift of God.” At least six times, only moderately rephrased, this refrain appears. The ability not only to perform work, but to take great pleasure in it, is a gift of God.

I put down the book and smile.

“There you are,” I say.

I just finished my 5th year (10th semester) of teaching college English classes. At last count, that’s 42 classes under my belt. I think that’s enough for the novelty to have worn off. And the fact that it hasn’t, that is a gift of God.

The fact that a student commented just yesterday on my obvious love for teaching… The fact that a student I had a year ago told her advisor last week that she still thinks about the personal philosophy project I assigned in Children’s Lit almost every day... The fact that a student texted me a month ago to tell me that a class discussion we’d had (in ENGLISH COMP) made her “rethink how she wanted to live her life”…

That is a gift of God.

Some people think God can’t be anywhere in a life if that life doesn’t look a certain way. Some believe God only cares about certain things (it’s a very short list), and that other things don’t matter at all – they’re “vanity of vanities” and not to be trusted or pursued. Messages delineating what things did and did not have value to God filled my formative years. The list continued to be amended (but not actually lengthened) far into my adulthood. It got confusing. It’s hard to unravel a cacophony of deeply engrained messages that play like Muzak in your subconscious, forming a layer of presuppositions behind everything you do.

Sometimes it takes a comfy chair, some peace and quiet, and the journal of an ancient teacher’s existential crisis to simplify things.

And this is simple.

There’s a lot I don’t know, and a lot I don’t care to argue.

But I do know this.

I am good at my job.

I love my job.

And this is God’s gift to me.

Merry Christmas!

 

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