Saturday, 21 April 2012

Vanity all is vanity

...The following was originally published in April 2012..the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic...

Last weekend was the one hundredth anniversary of the Titanic's fatal maiden voyage. The sinking of the unsinkable ship is the subject of countless films and books. It is one of the most famous tales of the twentieth century, perhaps because it symbolises the end of Victorian and Edwardian optimism and the idea of progress ever onwards and upwards. For within two years of her sinking the First World War would begin with all the horrors of industrial scale conflict.

So yes a century has passed since the Titanic’s ill-fated maiden voyage, when the inconceivable happened, to this flag ship of the “White Star Line”. The Titanic was the largest and most luxurious ocean liner ever to be launched. Designed by the Unitarian Thomas Andrew. She was built from the finest materials and by a highly skilled workforce; she boasted the most technologically advanced equipment, replete with a super-redundancy of water-tight compartments forming an inner hull with bulkheads that could be closed with the flip of an electric switch; she was believed to be virtually unsinkable.

So what happened?  Well on April 15th 1912 at 11.40, just four days into her maiden voyage she collided with an iceberg, resulting in a 230 foot long gash. Over the course of the next two hours, with lights still blazing and the band playing on she sank. All the brilliant machinery, all the carefully conceived splendour and 1,509 lives (69% of those on board) sank to an icy oblivion; a gruesome and a needless death.

Now I’m not going to discuss the why’s and wherefore’s of the Titanic’s demise, I am no engineering expert; nor am I going to discuss how the collision could have been avoided; nor am I going to discuss the horrific class division in those who survived the sinking. No I am talking of the Titanic because she seems to be an almost perfect example of hubris and human vanity; the belief that we can somehow transcend life and almost become Godlike. Yes, as I stated in my last blog, I do believe that we are capable of so much more than we often think, but we can never transcend the limits of life, well at least not within the limits of our human bodies. What happens beyond this life, well no one knows the answer to that. No one, it’s just another form of vanity to think that we do.

I have a growing affection for the Book of Ecclesiastes. In the first verses of the first chapter the writer claims that all is vanity.

"Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity."

We humans demand to know the answers to everything. Even if we could discover the answers to everything I am not convinced it would help; I am not convinced that it would fill that existential hole. Would it make life safe? Would it guarantee immunity from pain and suffering? Of course it would not, they are part of life.

Of course that does not stop us asking the question that we have pondered since time began; it does not stop us asking the ultimate question of them all, what is the meaning of life? The author of Ecclesiastes tells us that he spent quite some time himself not only asking this very question, but really striving for the answer. He tells us that he first sought pleasure, he spared himself no sensual delights; yet he found these pleasures hollow and meaningless, it was as if he were “chasing after wind”. He then threw himself into working hard and he succeeded, but discovered he received no greater reward for his labours than those who did little; hard work alone failed to make him happy nor did it give him a sense of accomplishment. So he devoted himself to righteousness, hoping that God would reward him for this; but soon discovered he was no better off than those who had robbed and cheated and stole from their neighbours. So he sought and won unimaginable power and what happened? Well that brought him little satisfaction too. Finally he concluded that all of this striving for rewards was meaningless and without substance; he concludes that it was all vanity; that once we see all that we gain, it just vanishes into the air. It’s all vanity, all is vanity.

Vanity all is vanity. This was Narcissus’s problem he was consumed by his own vanity. He was wrapped up in self adoration and was thus incapable of loving anyone else.  He stared into his own reflection and became consumed by his own love for himself and as a result he withered away and died. Maybe this is the problem. In our search for meaning and happiness we become consumed by ourselves and our own reflection. In so doing we become cut off from one another, from life and from God. Maybe the pursuit of happiness becomes so addictive and all consuming that we fail to experience life and therefore fail to experience the love that is already here. Chasing after happiness is like chasing after the wind. Well the wind is a wild and untameable beast. She doesn’t need taming, she just needs to be felt and or experienced and delighted in.  The gift is life itself and yet we spend so much time failing to truly experience it because we get lost in the whys and wherefore’s, in our own reflection, in our own vanity.

Below is an animated version of the Greek Myth "Echo and Narcissus"

According to Forrest Church:

“The word vain carries two complementary connotations: puffed up and empty (or impossible). To elevate ourselves above others is vanity, because from dust we all come and to dust we shall return; and attempting to do what cannot be done or to know what cannot be known is a vain, or impossible, endeavour. In common parlance, vanity is pride. We cannot form saving connections when we permit pride to distance us from others. And when we tether our hopes to a vain object, our lifelines will not hold. On the other hand, compassion unites us with others, and humility concedes our human limitations.”

Vanity, all is vanity...

Last Saturday I attended a joint fortieth birthday party for three old mates of mine. It was a great night, a lot of joy and a lot of laughter and a lot sharing of memories of years gone by. It was a wonderful and wonder filled occasion. As I drove back on the M62 I reflected on the places we have been together and my own life and its meaning.

I have struggled with life's purpose and meaning at many and varied stages, I have on occasions got lost in my own reflection, as have most of my friends. How do I know this? Well they have told me so. I don’t believe that any of us, at one stage or another, have failed to enter that existential black hole of meaninglessness and nothingness. Thankfully most of us made it out of it, but some did not. As I drove back I also reflected on friends I have known and lost over the years. I know how fortunate a man I am and for this I am eternally grateful. As Forrest Church so often points out we did nothing to deserve the God given gift that is life itself. Life truly is the greatest gift of all. Maybe to even ask the question why, is a form of vanity in itself. Why not me?

Although I do like the way that Ecclesiates critiques humanities vanity I do find it overly pessimistic and this pessimism does need questioning. There is great meaning to be unearthed in life. That meaning emerges in the work we do together, in those simple acts of compassion and love and in those simple acts of joy. Yes, ok, if we measure our success purely on whether or not it has made us happy, we may well be chasing the impossible. Happiness is not easily measured, despite the efforts of our government and the like. Happiness is not a commodity, it cannot be held onto, and it cannot be clung to. To chase happiness is to chase after the wind. Happiness, like the wind, is an untameable and an ungovernable beast.

So how do we measure the worth of our lives? Well maybe it’s only in the light of what we bring to the lives of others in their struggles and worries. If you have managed to put a smile on someone’s face this day then you have been a success or if you were able to sit with another in their pain than you have succeeded, in my eyes.

Yes if we live lives purely for ourselves, for our own purpose then our lives will become as frustrating as chasing after the wind. Likewise if our goal is to build that perfect Utopian society and we fall short, no doubt we will become frustrated at our inadequacies. Does this mean that we should do nothing? No of course not, just because the building of the “New Jerusalem” is probably beyond us it does not mean that we cannot make a difference, an important difference in this our world where caring and compassionate efforts truly are needed.

That’s not vanity, that’s love...and it is through acts of love that we know meaning and that we can know God. This is the kind of love that we ought to become consumed by, the love for others and the love for God. By doing so we will begin to experience true love for ourselves and not become consumed by our own reflection and sink into the depths of the water. That isn’t love that is Narcissism.

Remember we do not sail this ship alone. We all belong to the fellowship of the spirit, the fellowship of love. There is no turning the ship around; we are in this together all the way.

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