The biblical book of Kohelet (aka Ecclesiastes) opens with the line “Hevel Hevelim, Kol Hevel,” or “Hevel of Hevels, All is Hevel.” Right-- so what’s Hevel? The most direct translation is “vapor”-- think of breathing into the air on a cold morning. “Vapor of vapors, everything is vapor!” is the best translation, and never one that you’ll see in a English Bible. Based on how Kohelet then talks about life and the world, it seems like the “vaporousness” of things is a reflection of their transience.
But in most translations hevel is read as: vanity, futility, emptiness, meaningless, pointless. There’s an additional interpretation happening in these translations, based on this implicit principle:
Things that end are less meaningful/valuable than things that persist.
So: I think this principle is very problematic. I also agree with it. Herein lies the struggle.
Doesn’t Last = Less Valuable
Toys that break. Food that isn’t filling. Games that are only fun once or twice. Friends who flake or bore. Odd jobs. An insight that was moving last night but now feels cliche.
At the risk of being redundant and laying out the opposites: Lifelong hobbies. Nourishing food. Lifelong friends. Careers. Lasting realizations. Missions. Home.
Value and stability/longevity go together! Dependability, to me, is a major factor in a person/thing’s value.
Time and Suffering
With all things being subject to time, this conflation of persistence and value is ultimately damning to life. No, wait, let’s flip it-- life mocks our conflation of persistence and value, with time (and ultimately death) seeming to rob anything of lasting value.
I’ve been thinking about it this summer, in regards to both mundane and large-scale matters. I’ve been having a lot of summer fun while waiting for my job to start, and every so often in a moment of joy I’ll think “This is great! But what will it mean once it’s a memory?” What will be the value of previous carefree fun once I’m too old to enjoy anything? Or I’ll think (catastrophize, really) about future political and environmental upheavals, and wonder about the meaning of present peace in the face of future loss and devastation.
Kohelet expresses his skepticism about lasting value with the question: “What profit?” meaning, you get the value of the moment, but no lasting value. My own bleak way of expressing this idea is the phrase “No redemption.” I mean this in the sense you see on soda bottles, as in “CA Redemption Value.” “No redemption” means there’s no trade-in value. A moment cannot be traded for another. What nourishes me today cannot nourish me tomorrow because it’s been eaten already. Nothing can be regained. Loss is loss is loss.
If “Things that end are less meaningful/valuable than things that persist”
Then being subject to time involves a lifelong battle with meaninglessness and despair.
I’ll briefly map out five (somewhat overlapping) solutions to overcoming this existential issue.
Overcoming Time through Eternity
I see this as the most (western) Religious response. If the world of passing things is full of despair, seek out eternal things! All things must pass, but not God, or the soul, or any other being/item from the spiritual realm. On a secular level, the closest I can get to this is meditation, at least those meditations in which I try to identify with those things (air, earth, time) that will, at the very least, outlast me.
Overcoming Time through Savoring
This is the response of Positive Psychology. Yes, things do not last, but our power to appreciate, our power to look back and then carry forward can be cultivated. As I learn from David Abrams, the past need not disappear entirely-- in trees, the past is always contained inside the organism (as rings). With intentionality, I can re-member the past into my present experience, and wring further meaning and value.
Overcoming Suffering through Rebellion
This is the response of Existentialism (and particularly Camus). The world won’t satisfy our built-in desire for lasting meaning? Fine! We’ll find meaning/value in the absurdity. We won’t depend on stability. We’ll manifest meaning through acts of defiance/courage in the face of a tragic world.
Overcoming Suffering through Acceptance
Despite my lack of extensive learning on the subject, I still call this the Buddhist response (probably influenced by Alan Watts). Transience is only a problem for people who grasp, so stop grasping! Let time be time.
My personal journey out
Personally, I think the way out (and something that is touched upon in several of the above solutions is the task of Overcoming the Conflation of Value and Stability. As I just said, transience is only a problem for people who grasp at value, who think that value is lost if it can’t be held firmly in hand.
The tasks, then, are to: Find value despite/within that insecurity. Find value without assurance that it will continue. Find value in small things, and in brief encounters. Not just in the dependable but also in the random and sporadic. Have faith that loss is not total loss of value, but a clearing away for the value that follows upon loss.