Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
The KJV translates the Hebrew phrase “vanity of vanities.” Michael Fox has it as “absurdity of absurdities.” And Robert Alter, whom I trust, says “merest breath.” What are these translations referring to?
Well, everything. Everything under the sun, that is. In other words, life as we experience it. “All is mere breath,” says the wisdom of God. This impermanence and lightness of being cannot be got out from under no matter who you are – pagan or enlightened, pious or stony-hearted, rich or poor, farmer or city-dweller.
The tendency of breath is to come and go away and be replaced by another, identical gulp of air. The whole string of air intake/outtake is so monotonous, so predictable, we stop distinguishing one exhalation from another and just throw one word at the whole repetitive process, “breathing.”
No one’s complaining that breath is so good at just showing up, again and again. But then expand breathing’s monotony and predictability into every aspect of life, and that utter sameness of everything can really get you down. The snow comes, you shovel out your driveway, the truck plows you back in, you shovel out your driveway, the snow comes, you shovel out your driveway, the truck plows you back in…
To stick out the unvariedness of it all, do the following:
- Realize you can’t escape it. Oh no you don’t! – even your fantasies of living in southern California aren’t taking into account the dreariness that would set in from having to endure one perfect day after another. Anywhere you go, you’re still stuck in the cycle.
- Stay out of the search for the cure-all, the crest of the hill, the turned corner – the thing or accomplishment or move or romance or drug that will erase the possibility of dreariness, that will propel you out of the cycle.
- Understand that all work is endeavored under the condition of “mere breath.” So the challenge is not to find the extraordinary job or life, but rather to find a way for enjoyment in what is.
- Don’t struggle against the monotony and instead learn to live within it comfortably, copy it, take advantages from it, and even enjoy the ordinariness. Farmers make a living by this. The great storytellers point us back to the mundane, and show us its romance.
- Realize that this contentment (because that’s what we’re talking about) is a secret. These things don’t occur to most people. Or they are elusive to people, too slippery to be grasped and held on to. You’ll have to choose a faint trail.
- Even as you realize that “merest breath” is the current condition, also understand that it is not the world’s native or final condition. There are some unique, unrepeatable events in the history of the world. Swirl these around in your mind regularly. (I can think of four extraordinary moments – how many do you know of?)