Finding meaning in the boxing ring of life.
Meaning is not a recompense of karmic success. Meaning, like life, is a gift.
This article was originally written for Mockingbird.
Perhaps the most frustrating “frustration” observed by the Preacher of Ecclesiastes is his articulation of the fact that the things we are conditioned to believe will give us meaning and purpose and value don’t. Whatever panacea we are being sold, it is unfulfilling if it doesn’t come from God. Life decays, people die, stock markets crash, and the many calamities of life leave us mournful. Satisfaction and security in this life are mercurial and ellusive. Indeed, they’re more like fake carrots dangled at the end of a noose. They do not provide what they promise. Ronda Rousey certainly seemed to learn this the hard way.
In 2015 (if you can remember that far back), the UFC world as abuzz with one of the most anticipated fights in the history of the sport. UFC 193 pitted underdog Holly Holm against the ultra-favorite Ronda Rousey. If you’re a fan of UFC, you likely remember the hype surrounding this match. The stakes were much higher than a mere trophy (er, belt).
Rousey was a bona fide celebrity. Not only did she come into the match with an undefeated record in the octagon, but each of her victories were achieved with devastating efficiency. Rousey starred in movies, made TV appearances, and was easily the most recognizable face of the sport of at the time. She was (seemingly) untouchable. So a bantamweight title wasn’t the only thing on the line in this fight. It was Rousey’s entire persona. Her whole reputation, her identity, the hype of her ascendency all hung in the balance. If you don’t believe me, just listen to what Rousey said after she lost.
Oh, spoiler alert: Ronda Rousey lost to Holly Holm in embarrassing fashion. She was KO’d less than a minute into the second round, making the highly anticipated UFC 193 the “upset of the year,” according to several commentators. It certainly was a shocking outcome, especially to Rousey herself. In one of her first public appearances since that devastating loss, she chatted with Ellen DeGeneres and made a startling revelation.
Honestly, my thought, I was in the medical room and I was down in the corner, and I was like, “What am I anymore if I’m not this?” I was literally sitting there and thinking about killing myself, and that exact second I’m like, “I’m nothing. What do I do anymore?” and “No one gives a [crap] about me anymore without this.”
After years of going undefeated, a single loss left her devastated.
Prior to Holm’s uncanny success, it seems that Rousey had a lot riding on her successes. Her larger than life reputation depended upon being undefeated, to say nothing of her endorsement deals, acting career, and overall sense of security. Naturally, when the success was ripped away, so was everything else. I pray I don’t have to learn this lesson in quite the same way (please, God!). Relying on something “under the sun” for the source of my meaning and purpose and identity is like building a house on the sand. One wind storm and it’ll blow away. One uppercut and it’ll eventually be exposed, and the wreckage left leaves you worse than before. This is the main tenet explored at length in the book of Ecclesiastes. As the Preacher recounts all the tired avenues man (and he himself) has navigated in order to find lasting meaning, the result is always the same: “Absolute futility. Everything is futile” (Eccl. 1:1). Indeed, we’re chasing the wrong things, as Arthur Brooks put it recently:
We don’t get happier as our society gets richer, because we chase the wrong things.
Consumerocracy, bureaucracy, and technocracy promise us greater satisfaction, but don’t deliver. Consumer purchases promise to make us more attractive and entertained; the government promises protection from life’s vicissitudes; social media promises to keep us connected; but none of these provide the love and purpose that bring deep and enduring satisfaction to life.
This is not an indictment of capitalism, government, or technology. They never satisfy — not because they are malevolent, but rather because they cannot.
A nihilistic approach to Ecclesiastes sees the Preacher articulating the varied ways in which life is meaningless. However, throughout his subversive sermon, the latent message is that there is meaning to found — just not by us or in us.
This flies in the face of what is commonly accepted by society writ large. We are told from a very young age that so long as we put our mind to it, our dreams will come true. In order to find lasting meaning and fulfillment, you just have to work harder and longer than everyone else. The Preacher, however, asserts that that isn’t necessarily the case. “I saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift, or the battle to the strong, or bread to the wise, or riches to the discerning, or favor to the skillful; rather, time and chance happen to all of them” (Eccl. 9:11). We cannot withstand the barrages of life by the strength of our willpower. If that were the case, this world would look a lot different. For one, Ronda Rousey would still be undefeated.
The Preacher’s point remains that finding our meaning in things that will be forgotten along with us is an utterly foolish investment. Spending your life for meaning “under the sun” only ends in you becoming a “dead lion.” And a lion’s strength is nothing if it’s dead (Eccl. 9:4–5). The left haymaker of death exposes the foundations of what we’ve tried to build. The unavoidable certainty of death makes finding our meaning in things that will die with us all the more absurd. Our tombstones will likely not praise us for our successes, inventions, or fading glory.
Where, then, are we to look for the meaning we crave? Where is meaning to be found at all if not in these things? Where can we go for meaning, purpose, identity? These are valid questions, of course — questions which the Preacher answers in a roundabout way in verses 7–10.
Go, eat your bread with pleasure, and drink your wine with a cheerful heart, for God has already accepted your works. Let your clothes be white all the time, and never let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife you love all the days of your fleeting life, which has been given to you under the sun, all your fleeting days. For that is your portion in life and in your struggle under the sun. Whatever your hands find to do, do with all your strength, because there is no work, planning, knowledge, or wisdom in Sheol where you are going. (Eccl. 9:7–10)
The meaning of life “under the sun” is not found in something we forge ourselves. It isn’t something we can manufacture. It isn’t found in anything we can accomplish, achieve, or acquire. Any sense of meaning we create cannot avoid decay and entropy. We will inevitably be knocked out by our adversary’s uppercut. This is the lesson both the Preacher and Ronda Rousey learned (the hard way). Namely, that when we have explored every avenue for ultimate, lasting meaning — and found them lacking — that is when the message of grace speaks to us the clearest. And what is that message of grace? It’s that all that we long for is given to us in the person of Jesus Christ. So writes Malcolm Muggeridge:
For it is precisely when every earthly hope has been explored and found wanting, when every possibility of help from earthly sources has been sought and is not forthcoming, when every recourse this world offers, moral as well as material, has been explored to no effect . . . and in the gathering darkness every glimmer of light has finally flickered out, it’s then that Christ’s hand reaches out sure and firm. Then Christ’s words bring inexpressible comfort, then his light shines brightest, abolishing the darkness forever.1
Meaning is not a recompense of karmic success. Meaning is a gift. Life — with all its perplexities, complexities, vanities, frustrations, all of it — is a gift. And our meaning is found as we cherish the gift that’s been given to us “in this life” (Eccl. 9:7–9). We need not fret over what the future might or might not hold. We need not rage over things that do not ultimately matter. The simple life of the wise (and the faithful) sees every moment for what it is: a gift of grace. A gift in which all the “matters” matter. All the little matters of the present are evidences of God’s grace. And all the matters of the future are not up to you at all. You’re free to enjoy, be present for, whatever little matter is in front of you.
Meaning is found in what God gives us — and he has given us himself. He is our meaning. We cannot unearth meaning “under the sun” precisely because “there is no such thing.” “God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself,” Oxford don C. S. Lewis avers, “because it is not there. There is no such thing.”2 Meaning is a gift only God can give.
Malcolm Muggeridge, The End of Christendom (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), 56.
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 50.