So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a striving after the wind. ~ the Preacher, Ecclesiastes 2:17.
Last Saturday was terribly windy. As I looked out the window of my house at the waving branches and tumbling tumbleweed, I remembered—as I have so often—an afternoon I spent as a child out in the wind. Now, you’re going to think this is silly, but I’m going to tell it anyway.
I was 8 years old. We lived in a housing development in a lower middle-class neighborhood. These were the years my parents were down on their luck. My Dad lived away that year, participating in a study at a national laboratory for which, I suppose, we were given a stipend. We were on welfare, too. I remember going with my mother to get food, waiting on line for hours.
Anyway, every house in this depressed area was the same split level model with asbestos siding, concrete driveway and an obligatory lone maple sapling in the center of the front yard.
As a child, I often played outdoors alone. I had three younger siblings and all the neighbors had children our ages, but I guess I sought the outdoors—and solitude—more than most. The only open space there was the empty corner lot next to our house, where I spent many happy hours rapt in a world my sister called Lala Land.
So one windy day I was strolling around the lot when I spotted a large, clear plastic bag fluttering in the wind, the upper part of it wound around the end of a long stick. I picked up the stick and, behold, the bag filled with wind. The force of it pulled me and, rather than resist, I let myself go.
As the wind had its way with the bag, I ran, leaped, twirled, danced … flew! I laughed out loud and shouted, caught up in joy, pure joy.
I’d caught the wind and the wind caught me. I must have spent several hours at this. I even named the bag-stick toy, Tippy.
It was one of the happiest days of my life.
So last Saturday, nearly a half-century after that happy day, I bundled up, grabbed a plastic grocery bag from the pantry and went outdoors to find a stick. I wound the bag’s two handles around the tip and lifted it to catch the wind. Instant joy!
I was out there only a few minutes when Scarlett and Sydney—my three- and four-year-old granddaughters—arrived. I jumped up and down and showed them my … Tippy. Of course, they each wanted one, so in short order I rigged up two more. As the wind filled the bags, their faces lit up with happiness!
We ran out to the back hill and skipped and swirled and smiled around that acre for a time apart from time. We laughed out loud and shouted, caught up in the joy.
The wind. Growing up on an island, I spent a lot of time on boats: cabin cruisers, ferries, rowboats, speedboats, clamming boats, canoes. I love sitting or standing alone in the bow, out front, the wind and salt water in my face.
However, I’ve never been on a sailboat. I can only imagine what it must be like to hoist the sails and see them, feel them, fill with wind. The power.
The above-quoted Preacher equates the inability to catch the wind with vanity.
“Vanity: excessive pride in one’s appearance, qualities, abilities, achievements, etc.; character or quality of being vain; conceit.”
Our culture is based on vanity: the attainment of stuff, status and celebrity, to be seen by others as prosperous, pretty and pampered.
“[Egoism] is the most intangible and the most intolerable. … It is that condition in which the victim does a thousand varying things from one unvarying motive of a devouring vanity; and sulks or smiles, slanders or praises, conspires and intrigues or sits still and does nothing, all in one unsleeping vigilance over the social effect of one single person,” writes G.K. Chesteron.
It is a striving after the wind.
Wind is the first image the Bible gives us of God: Ruach Elohim (Wind God). “The earth was without form and void, and the darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:2).
RUACH ELOHIM, the breathing, blowing, surging phenomenon, is neither natural (wind) nor spiritual (spirit) but both in one; it is the creative breathing that brings both nature and the spirit into one being. … Here at the beginning of the Bible, RUACH ELOHIM stands as a great, unformulated, latent theological principle, expressed only by implication.—Martin Buber
So Preacher, Mr. All-Is-Vanity, what if … what if you actually catch the wind?