What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.
All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.
All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.
No one remembers the former generations,
and even those yet to come will not be remembered
by those who follow them.
I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens.
What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind!
I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
Ecclesiastes, Chapter 1, v. 3-14
Part 1 of this post is here.
Sometimes on Saturday mornings I like to read the obituaries. This is a perfectly normal hobby (said no one ever) but I like to read them for what I think is an unusual reason. Hear me out. The little details of people’s lives always interest me; the places they’ve traveled, where they moved before arriving in my city, the jobs they held and names they gave their children; the small things that make us human. When I visit cemeteries, there is nothing left of this.
This is one of the things that bothers me most about death, when I really think about it. Not even the sadness and immediate loss of someone who was so alive and present, but the flattening of a person.
The transition from a vibrant and multi-faceted being into a list of dates and characteristics has always seemed like a disservice on top of a loss. I feel this way about people I know, and about people I will never know; almost as if I’m mourning the loss of whatever made them them, and the process that makes it so.
I don’t think this is a very normal thing to worry over, but normal is just a setting on the dryer anyway.
Reading the obituaries, even if they’re a bit flat (they usually are) or paint the person as some type of saint (they usually do) is one way I get around this.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about death, which prompted me to write these two posts. Not in a morbid sort of way, more as a reflection on the circle of life. I’ve just noticed how we handle it and don’t handle it in society (usually we don’t).
I first noticed it when an acquaintance died a few years ago in a recreational accident. What I realized about his death was how utterly unnecessary it was, and how ridiculous it was to be angry about this. Yet still, I was.
Before his death, I’d always had the idea that at least if we had to die, it would be better if it happened in the service of some type of worthy cause. I know how silly this is; thousands of people die every day from heart attacks and unintentional injuries. Still, like most people, I looked for some meaning in his death, and finding none, I was incredibly frustrated.
The years I’ve spent editing the world news sections of the local paper should have prepared me for these types of moments. One can only edit so many versions of ‘Suicide bomber attacks wedding party, kills 57’ before becoming a bit numb to the whole business of death. But it didn’t. I still felt something, if only an impotent rage at the inanity of it, the waste of someone’s life spent so early.
Who am I, you might be thinking, to determine if someone’s life is wasted? It’s a good question. If someone dies doing something they love doing, isn’t that as good a way to go as any? After all, most of the time death doesn’t mean anything, like it does in stories. It’s not saving someone from burning building or a speeding car, usually. It’s mundane, or slowly agonizing, or an emptiness so sudden we don’t realize it’s there until we pick up the phone to call someone who can’t answer.
To save this post from being completely sad, although I don’t believe in fake happy endings, I’ll leave with a bit of a poem, one that’s stayed with me ever since I read it. All we have are the moments right in front of us, with those we have now, because there are no guarantees about getting an interesting obituary.
What if you knew you’d be the last
to touch someone?
If you were taking tickets, for example,
at the theater, tearing them,
giving back the ragged stubs,
you might take care to touch that palm,
brush your fingertips
along the life line’s crease.
When a man pulls his wheeled suitcase
too slowly through the airport, when
the car in front of me doesn’t signal,
when the clerk at the pharmacy
won’t say Thank you, I don’t remember
they’re going to die.
A friend told me she’d been with her aunt.
They’d just had lunch and the waiter,
a young gay man with plum black eyes,
joked as he served the coffee, kissed
her aunt’s powdered cheek when they left.
Then they walked half a block and her aunt
dropped dead on the sidewalk.
How close does the dragon’s spume
have to come? How wide does the crack
in heaven have to split?
What would people look like
if we could see them as they are,
soaked in honey, stung and swollen,
reckless, pinned against time?
(Ellen Bass, If You Knew)