But to what end?

Why do we work so hard? Why do we rush about doing things and accumulating ideas and experiences and resources and relationships? Why do we push and fight for growth? To what end do we do it all?

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August 25, 2022
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But to what end?

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“The wise man seeks death all his life and therefore death is not terrible to him.” — Leo Tolstoy, A Confession

Why do we work so hard?

Why do we rush about doing things and accumulating ideas and experiences and resources and relationships?

Why do we push and fight for growth?

To what end do we do it all?

Why do we exercise our bodies and seek out their limits?

Why do we stretch our minds to the point of absolute exhaustion?

Why do we take new territory and build new things and create new technology?

To what end?

Is it for the sake of progress?

Is it so that our name can be remembered?

Is it for legacy?

Is it because it feels good?

Is it to help people become better?

What’s the point?

Ecclesiates makes it pretty clear: there seems to be no end. Okay, this is starting off a bit depressing, but it should get better. Hang on.

King Solomon sought it all out, and he got what he was after. There’s no chance that we will never get as far as he did in the pursuit of having it all. Think about it — complete rulership, as many lovers as he wanted, businesses that generated millions and provided jobs for a nation, unmatched wisdom, the wealth of the world and all the power within it. You know, all that stuff. “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” And, “I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish.” (NIV)

Okay, cool. Thanks.

Is it enough for people to say about us, “Well, she gave it all she had!”? Or, “Wow they got a lot done!” Sure, it inspires other people when we achieve and strive and make people better and take the raw materials we’ve been given and build something beautiful. We see presidents and heroes and leaders and we watch in awe. We want it. But why?

You might be thinking, “Curtis, just shut up and get to work. It doesn’t matter.” But it seems to me that more often than not, at the end of a life filled with great pursuits, the question that’s been buried somewhere behind the contemplation and silence rises to the surface, “Wait, what was all this for again?” A mentor said to me once that discipline weighs ounces and regret weighs tons. I don’t know who said this originally, but it makes sense. You can recover from the pain of discipline, but regret leaves a thick tar behind. A forever kind of residue. So I’d rather ask the questions now.

Jim Rohn once said, “Well, you’ve got to stay here til you go. So what else are you gonna do?” He was eluding to giving this life all our effort in pursuit of success and influence. I used to think that was enough. But then I started to read scripture. Then I began to read the works of deceased thinkers like Leo Tolstoy and Marcus Aurelius. All of the sudden, doing it for the “love of the game” wasn’t enough. Mainly because just saying, “I do it because I love it” or even “I’m doing it to make the world a better place”, is dishonest. Honesty would require me to admit something that I didn’t even realize before — that all I wanted was to feel good, to have fun and to have the world applaud me. That’s cheap.

Here’s what Tolstoy wrote in his book A Confession. (A little context first, he spent his life in academics seeking out the meaning of life and pursuing the success that culture told him he needed to have. He started wondering whether the way he was living was right, or whether he was just a product of his environment.)

He asked the question, “Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?” He sought solace in science and found no answer.

Listen to this, “That faith took with me the common form it assumes with the majority of educated people of our day. It was expressed by the word “progress”. It then appeared to me that this word meant something. I did not as yet understand that, being tormented (like every vital man) by the question how it is best for me to live, in my answer, “Live in conformity with progress”, I was like a man in a boat who when carried along by wind and waves should reply to what for him is the chief and only question, “Whither to steer”, by saying, “We are being carried somewhere.”

Confused? It’s a Russian philosopher’s pontification translated into English. It would be more weird if it wasn’t confusing.

Here’s my incomplete interpretation:

“I worked with these men who were esteemed higher than all the rest and I was seeking after what was most important to them and I assumed it was what should be most importantto me too. The answer to what they were after came in the form of the word “progress”. But what was their definition of progress, because what were they actually “progressing” toward? The question in every humans mind (it’s there for all of us if we would just slow down enough to listen to our own soul) is, “What is the way I should live?” “What is progress?” I found myself simply believing that I needed to conform to the progress that we “smart people” call progress. But then I became lost because I realized that these brilliant people had defined the means but not the end. I was like a man in a boat being tossed all over the place. And in this moment there was only one question to ask, “Where am I supposed to steer this thing toward?” And the best answer I had was, “I dunno, I guess I’ll just go where I’m taken.”

Most of us never stop to ask the questions of why we do what we do and where it is we are going. We just live in conformity with progress and move in the direction of the wind and waves. No thought of history and the mistakes we are repeating from the past. No thought of the regrets that we’ll certainly have at the end of it all. No thought of whether or not we are just blindly moving with the waves of culture without ever looking at a compass or putting our sails up.

Confession: I spend a weird amount of time in graveyards. I like reading the engraved pieces of stone that serve as memorials of a life lived. Some just have dates and a name, others have little sayings or nicknames, some are buried next to spouses and children, some are big and extravagant, some are barely noticable. And in passing by, we just see the stone coming up out of the ground. But if we stay a moment, it starts to settle in that they were once just like us. They had ambitions and worries and broken bones and boring days and first kisses and all that suff that makes up this life as we know it.

The reason I like taking time to stare at the stones is because it takes me out of the center of the universe for a moment. My default is to think that I’m super important and that my worries are huge and my ambitions are world changing. But one day, I’ll be just like them. Now if this is depressing to you, it doesn’t need to be.

Ecclesiastes used to be the saddest book in scripture to me but it’s become one of my favorites to revisit. It removes the undue stress from life because the dude that did it all said, “Hey, everything you’re stressed about and running after isn’t “all that” when you get it. So here’s the deal work hard and do good work and enjoy the things in life that society doesn’t celebrate like good food and good company. Kiss your wife. Imagine with your kids. Take risks and have fun. In the end, the only thing that matters is that you realize who God is and who you are and that you’re obidient to the one who created it all and loves you unconditionally.”

I love this book because it simplifies life. I like to complicate it. Tik Tok complicates life. Government complicates life and so does emotion and circumstance. When really, it’s simple, “Fear God and follow his commandments.”

I guess that’s progress.