“Absolute futility,” says the Teacher.
“Absolute futility. Everything is futile.”
What does a person gain for all his efforts
that he labors at under the sun?
A generation goes and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets;
panting, it returns to the place
where it rises.
Gusting to the south,
turning to the north,
turning, turning, goes the wind,
and the wind returns in its cycles.
All the streams flow to the sea,
yet the sea is never full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
All things are wearisome,
more than anyone can say.
The eye is not satisfied by seeing
or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Can one say about anything,
“Look, this is new”?
It has already existed in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of those who came before;
and of those who will come after
there will also be no remembrance
by those who follow them.
— Ecclesiastes 1:2-11

Before we reach our author’s autobiographical account and experience of the world, we read a poetic retelling of “the way the world is.” Needless to say, the thesis in the first verse forecasts the entirety of the poem, no vision of redemption. Instead, what we see is the view of one without hope, a picture of what Longman calls in his commentary a “progressive spiral.” If what we hypothesize is true of our teacher, then the term coined by John P. Wilson in his study of asylum seekers and refugees is characteristic of him and his writing as well: “broken spirit.”

We’ve spent the last ten days in Hawai’i, basking in the sun while our hometown gets pelted with inches upon inches of snow. Days have been filled with lounging in the sun, hiking up craters and peaks, and spending much needed time with new and old family members.

We’ve also come into the season in Hawai’i where the tradewinds blow through, pelting sand against our skin at twenty miles per hour and spurts of cold rain falling fast before the warmth breaks through once more. I’m not complaining, especially with my arrival home being a polar vortex frostbite greeting, but it has been interesting to engage with this text while experiencing these forces of nature. Even as I get to know family members as an in-law, I find that the problems that I feel even in my own family are not foreign to others.

Sometimes, when you taste and see, the flavor can hit all parts of the palate, bitterness intermingling with even the best of sweet. Yet the sea is never full.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
— Mary Oliver, When Death Comes

But these verses are never wasted, words never returning void. We observe, we consider, we pay attention and we see thoughts we may have spoken aloud ourselves, especially when things seem beyond miracle, beyond redemption. Hopelessness is familiar to many of us, and these scriptures show us that lament has a proper place, that coming to terms with our short-sightedness and weakness in the face of not only our own sin but the sin of others, is a place that makes a home.

Many people talk about making their legacy, leaving a mark with the life that they had. That is well and good, meaningful, and as we continue on through this difficult text, we see that even there finds lack. What then do we seek?

This virtue, hope, calls to be practiced and also seems to be one of the most difficult; when life has you bruised and beaten, where do we turn?

Rescue will come from somewhere else.
— Zack Eswine