Kohelet — narrator of the book of Ecclesiastes — lives on the edge.
The edge of fulfillment, that is.
“I’m king in Jerusalem,” he says, meaning, “I have the resources to fulfill all my desires.”
And, with all those resources, he can’t actually fulfill any of them.
At his core he feels a deep discomfort. The sea fills, the sea empties; the sun rises, the sun sets. Everything goes round and round in a cycle, and nothing, ever, is gained.
So he tries to soothe that discomfort, cover it with meaning.
He goes to parties and festivals, drinking and doing drugs. And the discomfort returns.
He tries retail therapy, buying the best of everything. And the discomfort returns.
He tries nature therapy, sitting in beautiful gardens, by the sweetest streams. And the discomfort returns.
He goes back to school, studying humanities, sciences, and the creative arts. And the discomfort returns.
Finally, he concludes: There is actually nothing wrong with me.
It’s the nature of human beings to feel unsettled. Because we have to live in two perspectives at once.
We live with a farsighted view of life, a view taken by the sciences of history, sociology, and psychology. God sets laws of nature. For all our research, we know only a few of these laws and cannot control their effects at all. “Vanity of vanities,” says Kohelet, “all is vanity.”
We also live with a nearsighted view, a focus on our personal lives, local communities, and regional events. Things about which we care deeply, where we know we make a difference. “Whatever is in your power to do,” Kohelet says, “do it with all your might. Get an education. Find a partner. Work in solidarity with others to alleviate end exploitation.”
Just as we decide one view is true, the other emerges into focus. This, too, is a cycle of life.
Kohelet invites us to ride this cycle, to learn how to hold both views.
To be humble enough to know that the planet goes round and round without us.
To be engaged enough to know that our actions shape our families, our communities and our countries.
And to understand why neither perspective fully satisfies, so we can make peace with our discomfort, and live with equanimity on an unstable edge.