The Gurus You Listen to...and Those You Don't

When hasn't wine, beer and good cheer failed to provide a balm to make the wounded whole?  

Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. 

~ 1 Corinthians 15:32


Some people choose to believe the gurus and their mantras. Hard work pays off. People get their due. You are the master of your destiny.

They take them to heart.

And when they round a bend in the path of life, and meet with misfortune head on, what happens?

They go mad.

Around 20 years ago, the Seattle Times or the Post-Intelligencer ran a story about a Seattle man driving along I-5 one weekday morning. While crossing over Lake Union, he pulled to the shoulder, opened the door and stepped into the road, where commuters on their way to work and parents shuttling their children to school pummeled into him at 60 and 70 miles an hour.

The article quoted his girlfriend, who said that days earlier he was passed over for a promotion at Microsoft, and he'd taken it pretty hard.

He had indeed.

It's easy to imagine the circumstances that brought him to that state. The company's stacked ranking policy created a cutthroat culture where managers impaled one another in battles to receive the highest performance evaluation. For too many long-drawn-out years, he'd stomached the daily blood baths, fought behind a veneer of polished jokes, handshakes and water cooler banter.

It was all justified because of this moment. He'd prove himself with a promotion to upper-management. All the ridicule he'd endured from schoolmates, the disparagements from his father. He'd be a contender; he'd have class. Not a nobody, not a bum.

Over the previous few months, he'd even taken to looking at the calendar in countdown to his big break. He chosen the car he'd parade past commuters in on his way to work. He and his girlfriend daydreamed about their forever home in Mt. Baker, overlooking Lake Washington with a pool in the backyard.

And when he didn't receive it--the giddy schadenfreude in the eyes of his coworkers, alongside their professional smiles with shimmery white teeth, the lecture from his father, the shock from his girlfriend; What do you mean it’s not happening?! I thought it was in the bag!--it was too much.


Who hasn't been similarly tormented by the unPHAIRness that life serves up as reliably as the Pike Blend at Starbucks; permanent disabilities, long-term illnesses, unbearable in-laws who show up hungry for every major holiday, savings depleted in a drawn-out, treacherous divorce, children who never visit but cost an arm and a leg to put through school, goals and dreams that don’t materialize after years of hard work, and which others realize with ease?

Do these same gurus have anything to impart when they've taken their proteges to the limit? When, in the face of an impasse, their tired cliches signify little more than nothing?

Qoheleth the Legend

Way back in the day, Qoheleth compiled a collection of sayings and insights that came to be known as the Book of Ecclesiastes.

Qoheleth sought to find pleasing sayings, and to write down true sayings with precision. (12:10)

Qoheleth is not a person specifically, but rather a title for a teacher, a preacher, a collector of sayings. Traditionally, the authorship of the book is attributed to King Solomon.

A few of Qoheleth's pleasing sayings have been used, overused and torn to shreds.

“Vanity of Vanity! All things are vanity!” Qoheleth begins his book.

A familiar modern-day reference to this passage is Tom Wolfe's bestselling Bonfire of the Vanities, and the execrable big-screen production with Tom Hanks and Kim Cattrall.

There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot the plant. A time to kill and a time to heal....etc, etc. (3:1-8)

Who hasn't hummed this verse in the lyrics to The Birds' 1965 #1 hit, “Turn, Turn, Turn”?

And a passage that's repeated daily: “Nothing is new under the sun.” (1:9) 

No doubt about it, Qoheleth's sayings have been pleasingly woven into the fabric of our culture. But do they do more than pitch an auspicious book or line the pockets of folk rock musicians?

True Sayings with Precision?

Qoheleth's central message grates against those of the self-help, hustle-culture gurus. Life isn't a meritocracy, he observes. No one gets what they deserve; inequity, rather, is the way of things.

The race is not won by the swift, nor the battle by the valiant, nor a livelihood by the wise, nor riches by the shrewd, nor favor by the experts. 

I have seen under the sun another evil, like a mistake that proceeds from the ruler: a fool put in lofty position while the rich sit in lowly places. 

There are just men treated as though they had done evil and wicked men treated as though they had done justly. This too, I saw is vanity. (9:11; 10: 5-6; 8:14)

In addition to observing it, he also offers an explanation for the vanity of things:

Just as you know not how the breath of life fashions the human frame in the mother's womb, so you know not the work of God which he is accomplishing in the universe. (11:5)

And he even addresses the question that's supported millions upon millions of psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists: How to react to this senselessness?

Do not in spirit become quickly discontented, for discontent lodges in the bosom of a fool. 

I commend mirth, because there is nothing good for man under the sun except eating and drinking and mirth: for this is the accompaniment of his toil during the limited days of the life which God gives him under the sun. (7:9; 8:15)

It's going to be an inane, empty nightmare, Qoheleth elucidates. Anticipate it. As life is as mysterious as the origin of life itself, trying to make sense of things is pointless. Our great task lies in enduring this tale told by an idiot. Stop thrusting the lower lip. Remember that ignorance is bliss. Return to the state of Charlie at the beginning of Flowers for Algernon. Stick a geranium in your hat and be happy.

It's a formula that’s supported millions upon millions of pubs, bars, breweries and wineries since time immemorial, and is echoed in the George Carlin joke:

You hate your job? There's a support group for that. It's called EVERYBODY, and they meet every Friday night at the bar.


Does Ecclesiastes hit the mark? Are Qoheleth's mantras a precise interpretation of this vale of tears?

When befuddled by the conundrums of life, and rifling through words of wisdom in search of clarity, is it possible to know which of the sayings is trustworthy? And which guru provides a way that leads to truth and to life?


0 reactions:

Post a Comment