I, Kohelet

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The structure of this essay mirrors the structure of the book of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet).

The words of Laura, a mom in Vancouver.

You wash the dishes, cook a meal, then there are more dirty dishes and everyone’s hungry again. What’s the point?

Is there ever really a net gain from all your labor?

One generation goes, another comes. The older generation reviews its mistakes and turns its hopes towards the younger. But the younger generation, too, will have to learn from its mistakes. The world will be better off for the learnings and worse off for the mistakes.

Is there really anything new under the sun?

Sure, sometimes people think there is. But all they have to do is crack a Penguin Press classic once in a while to learn there is not.

Sigh.  Such is the life of a teacher. Another day, another dollar.

I, Laura, a teenager in New York City, set my mind to observe, record, and ponder everything that happened around me.

I can’t honestly say I tried the path of wealth, though I’ve never been extremely poor.

And I can’t honestly say I tried the path of pleasure, though I do enjoy sitting in the sun reading a good book.

But I certainly did try the path of knowledge. And I formally studied philosophy for many years. Thirty-five, to be exact.

And I learned some really good things using logical reasoning.

When I was 15, I reasoned:

Humans are animals.

Many humans believe animals operate on mindless instinct.

But they don’t believe they themselves operate on mindless instinct.

There’s a contradiction here.

What’s the solution?

Just as we experience ourselves thinking and feeling, so do all creatures, in the forms made possible by their particular bodies.

Now this was pure reason, and not tested in experience. But I learned a lot in the coming years about the limitations of pure reason.

When I was forty, I listened at a conference to an hour-long philosophical analysis of the predicate phrase, “is in pain.” Not once did the speaker acknowledge that there might be a subject of that predicate, a person or animal or nation who was experiencing pain.

And I was distressed, because so much of academic life was empty wind – mistakes that no one learns from.

All the knowledge and wisdom that I was gaining from learning with my students – what would be its fate?

Best to come home, hug my kids, feed the cats, and tell my partner I love him.

But I know, there are dark nights of the senses, and dark nights of the soul, and times for soul-searching, and that out of old disappointments new opportunities will emerge.

And that alongside soul time, there is another kind of time. Everyday time.

A time to wake up

And a time to make breakfast

A time to pack lunchboxes

And a time to drive carpool

A time to drink a cup of coffee

And a time to go to work

Time for a meeting

And time to teach

Time to write personnel evaluations

And time to calm people down

Time to race out for school carpool again

And time to serve afterschool snack

A time to supervise homework

And a time for bath and bed

Time to run out to a meeting

And time to enjoy the friendship of fellow volunteers

Time to come home and let the rabbit out to play

And time to finish all the work due by 9 am the next day.

Never enough of this kind of time.

And then there is God’s time. God decides when we are born, when we die, when we are healthy, when we are ill, and when we are at peace.

And there is absolutely no logic in it.

The lazy become rich.

The mean become powerful.

The loving become ill.

The hard workers lose their jobs when times are tough.

Really, the last time logic worked for me was when it helped me understand animals. We share life’s breath with all creatures on the planet, and each one of us can choose to help us all rise up or help us all sink down.

Some who suffer have no one to comfort them. This is heartbreaking. I do not have enough time or strength to do a fraction of what I would like to do to help.

And sometimes I’m jealous of those who have more free time and better health and can do more for others than I can. Talk about empty wind! What a waste of precious time to feel jealousy about this!

I’m glad that I am surrounded by people who can teach me wisdom. And that I have had jobs from which I’ve learned self-discipline. And that my religious tradition teaches me to guard my speech. Wisdom, self-discipline, and careful speech – the threefold cord is not easily broken.

Some days I’m strong in this knowledge. But some days I am cynical – corruption and waste are all around us! I can’t decide if it’s more painful to see or to pretend not to see. My father used to say, “No one really knows that the right thing to do is.” And also, “time is the enemy.” And also, “sooner or later, everyone learns what a person’s real character is.” And also, “I love you.”

Plato used to say, and I guess he still does say, because people are still listening to him: “Don’t listen to the multitude, but listen to the one who knows.” And also, “There is no public reward for being good – pursue good because it makes your soul good.” And, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” And, my favorite of all, “Love makes the world go around.”

When I moved to Vancouver, I joked that I wanted to live on Sophia Street – the street of wisdom. And now, literally, I do. 4425. Wisdom is my shelter. And so is love. Both helped me learn to pick my battles.

It’s not enough in life just to hug my kids, feed the cats and tell my partner I love him. But it would be a wasted life if I didn’t hold these things precious.

Because I don’t know when a crisis might be coming, so I might as well find my truth and bank my strength now.

And let my concept of God evolve over a lifetime so that I can find that inner space to deal with the inevitable mistakes and the accidental successes.

On the wall of the women’s bathroom in the Grind Café, someone has written, “Life is a constant struggle against oxygen deprivation.”

I have seen personally that life begins and ends with breath, that life is animated spirit, that music and dance and poetry are all shaped breath, and so, by the way, is a kiss. You can read the 3500 word version of this philosophy on my website.

But the sum of the matter, when all is said and done, there is a profit, if you’re lucky, and it’s love. And, as you may have heard, all philosophy is just a footnote to Plato.

— Laura Duhan Kaplan, 2008

Image: www.noahalliance.org


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