The Pandemic and the Experience of Vanity
The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever. (Ecclesiastes 1:1-4 NRSV)
A month or two ago, I was speaking with a friend about the extra personal time I gain working at home. Eliminating my commute to and from work nets me an additional hour at home each day. My hour-long lunch break can be utilized to work on chores or run a quick errand. If a meeting or appointment is canceled last minute, I can then put my time to good use around the house. After explaining this to my friend, he said something like, “Well, you ought to have a lot of time to make your yard look amazing then.” To which I replied, “No, actually it’s the opposite.”
In principle, I have at least two extra hours each day that I can reallocate to keeping my yard pristine. Looking at it that way, my grass should be plush and green, my flower beds meticulously weeded, and all my plants neatly trimmed. However, the experience of living in a global pandemic makes it hard to devote extra time to yard work. I am left with the question, “Why?”
Even though I am young and in relatively good health, COVID-19 makes it abundantly clear that nothing is guaranteed or permanent. Regardless of the state of my yard, I will be happy to simply be alive next month. “For a living dog is better than a dead lion” (Eccl 9:4). Whether or not my grass is fertilized, I will be thankful to still have a job a year from now. When life’s basic existence comes into question, yard work is revealed as a vain luxury.
The Blessing of Vanity
From my point of view, COVID-19 has the blessed effect of unmasking the vanities of the world around us. Colleges and universities are slowly realizing that it is futile to play sports during a pandemic. Whether or not canceling football season is the appropriate choice for player health and safety, there will almost assuredly be significant economic implications for not playing fall sports. Yes, football is vain, but football is also the financial engine room of college athletic departments. Who is to say what the right choice is and what will be the long-term impact of those choices? “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Eccl 1:2).
In my experience, most people are uncomfortable with encountering vanity in all its naked rawness. To many, the book of Ecclesiastes may appear depressing, bleak, and hopeless. Yet, there is hope in the experience of vanity. When vanity sifts the things of this life, what matters remains. When the Teacher comes to the end of his life observations in Ecclesiastes, he is left with this truth: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Eccl 12:13-14). The condition of my yard and whether or not my beloved Ohio State Buckeyes play football any time soon may not matter much in the grand scheme of things, but the state of my soul and being before God is of the utmost importance.
Featured image from Flickr user John Munt. Used under the creative commons license.