“Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”
So begins the ancient wisdom book of Ecclesiastes, known to many from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Qoheleth, the speaker in the book, goes on something of a rampage against wisdom, morality, and pursuing one’s desires. What brings Qoheleth to his famous opening lines is the realization that death is universal.
I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals. For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth? -Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes 3:18–21, NRSV)
Strangely enough, this reflection on the inevitability of death and the futility of many aspects of life leads Qoheleth to several positive conclusions. In light of all the negativity, he still asserts that people should find joy in their work, enjoy their spouse, and serve God. This is an interesting response to death since it seems like such a terrible thing. Qoheleth did not seem to believe in a blessed afterlife for the faithful, every person faced the same shadowy grave. Even for people who do believe in a blessed afterlife face some degree of uncertainty in death, as well as a temporary, but significant, loss when a loved one dies.
The inevitability of death and a lack of any clear purpose and meaning for life leading up to it reeks of absurdity. We find ourselves looking for meaning in a world that refuses to provide it. Even the scriptures of Christianity and Judaism do not go out of their way to clearly explain the ultimate meaning of things, or if there even is one. We are left to deal with this conundrum ourselves.
Our responses to death can be boiled down to three: despair, resistance, or acceptance. In the final conflict between Batman and the Joker in The Killing Joke, the Joker defends his insanity on the grounds that life is meaningless, that insanity is the only reasonable way to deal with reality. Giving up and giving in, according to the Joker, is the only way. That kind of despair, however, seems immediately impractical. Even Qoheleth, with all of his skepticism, does not remain there for long. Despair over the absurdity of life simply is not useful and our bodies demand that we continue to feed and protect them. Deep down, most of us still want to live.
Silly goose, it’s all a joke. Everything anybody’s ever valued or struggled for, it’s monstrous! Why can’t you see the funny side? – The Joker
As an example of resistance, consider for a moment the iconic hero-turned-villain: Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. Anakin’s sudden turn to the dark side of the Force was urged on by his desire to prevent the death of his wife during childbirth. Consider these observations from The Dark Lord Trilogy:
Anakin sometimes thinks of the dread that eats at his heart as a dragon. Children on Tatooine tell each other of the dragons that live inside the suns… But Anakin’s fear is another kind of dragon. A cold kind. A dead kind. Not nearly dead enough… all those years ago, a minor mission brought them to a dead system: one so immeasurably old that it’s star had long ago turned to a frigid dwarf of hyper-compacted trace metals… hovering a fraction of a degree above absolute zero… he’d never forgotten that dead star. It had scared him…
“Stars can die?”
“It is the way of the universe…” Obi-wan had told him. “Everything dies. In time, even stars burn out…”
That is the kind of fear that lives inside Anakin Skywalker: The dragon of that dead star. It is an ancient, cold dead voice within his heart that whispers all things die … But locked away behind the walls of his heart, the dragon that is his fear coils and squirms and hisses. Because his real fear, in a universe where even stars can die, is that being the best will never be quite good enough.
When faced with the reality of death, Anakin chose to resist instead of despairing. Ironically, it was Anakin’s refusal to accept Padmé’s death and his subsequent fall to the dark side that resulted in her death. Resisting human limitations and fighting mortality was a losing battle for Anakin.
Ultimately, death is something human beings have to deal with. There are no clear-cut and universal answers about death, or even about life. While the inevitable death of the individual may seem to render life meaningless, maybe Christmas has a lesson to offer. Every year we eagerly anticipate the holiday season. We begin preparations weeks ahead of time. Many sectors of the rabid economy actually shut down for at least a few hours in honor of the “most wonderful time of the year.” Then, as will be the case within 48 hours of this writing, it will be over. Christmas will be dead and gone for another year. Yet its brevity may very well be the source of its magic. After all, if Christmas was every day it would lack any meaning at all.
Maybe one way to look at life in light of death is to allow death to give life meaning. We begin, we proceed, and then we die. Life is tangible and measurable. Like Christmas, it is short. Since death cannot be ultimately avoided, we cannot live to merely avoid death. In a strange way, religious teachings about afterlives and resurrections may actually serve to turn our attention away from our inevitable demise and to live our lives in the here and now, conscious that even if our actions have little meaning in the grand scheme of the universe, they do have meaning today, tomorrow, and for years to come. We can enjoy Christmas, knowing that it will soon be over and we will return to the daily grind of paying bills to support us on our steady march to the grave. Qoheleth may have been right, maybe everything is meaningless. However, just because life does not hand us meaning wrapped up with a pretty bow, that does not mean that there is not meaning to be made. Merry Christmas!
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