How did you sleep during the early days of the pandemic?
From late February to mid-April of this year, I was jolted awake many nights by variations of the same nightmare: the sedation was wearing off, and because of the respirator pushed down my throat, I wasn’t able to let anyone around me know I was simultaneously suffocating and gagging.
Many years of constant respiratory infections due to an undiagnosed immune system deficiency left my lungs scarred. I had a bad experience with general anesthesia when I was 30 when the anesthesiologist difficulty getting the breathing tube down my throat after I was first put under. My body carried those traumatic memories, and my adrenaline-saturated night terrors may have been my soul’s way of beginning to come to terms with the plague that was spreading across the planet. I read too many terrifying news stories by day and then dreamed I couldn’t breathe at night.
This year has been scary and sad for everyone. Too many of us are carrying grief as family members or friends have gotten sick and some have died, others have suffered financial setback, and all of us mourn the losses of gathering, travel, school, and all the unremarkable moments of daily life before COVID-19 hit.
I haven’t enjoyed 2020 much. Maybe you haven’t either.
I am finding helpful eternal perspective this fall by revisiting the book of Ecclesiastes with my Bible study group. It is the book of the Bible that some insist might be penned by an ancient Debbie Downer in need of antidepressants. It took this book’s message that our lives are but a breath to remind me to breathe this year.
I read passages like Jesus’ parable about the wealthy man who hoarded his wealth and pursued pleasure only to face a death for which he wasn’t prepared as a cautionary tale and internalized that I needed to live in constant readiness for the end. This readiness seemed to exclude pleasure. I wasn’t especially good at living this way – I have indeed enjoyed much sweetness in life, but the message of that parable was always there, scolding me toward sobriety. I missed the core message of this parable, that Jesus wasn’t warning in this story about quashing pleasure as much as he was telling his hearers they need to honor the Giver of all good gifts by living a generous and justice-centered life, caring for the poor.
Journalist H.L. Mencken famously defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” I had trouble imagining that pleasure could be a blessing instead of a gateway to sin – which is our culture’s caricature of a Puritan, and an idea I’d subconsciously embraced – until I first studied Ecclesiastes in depth a couple of years ago.
That study in Ecclesiastes presented me with the radical idea that enjoying my life could be a way of giving God glory. It seems so simple when written in black and white, but my pessimistic nature and anxious habits of soul muted my ability to grasp the obvious:
So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot. For who can bring them to see what will happen after them? (Ecclesiastes 3:22)
God gives some people wealth, possessions and honor, so that they lack nothing their hearts desire, but God does not grant them the ability to enjoy them, and strangers enjoy them instead. This is meaningless, a grievous evil. A man may have a hundred children and live many years; yet no matter how long he lives, if he cannot enjoy his prosperity and does not receive proper burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. (Ecclesiastes 6:2-3)
So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 8:15)
The Preacher who penned these words wasn’t advocating that we party like its 1999. That is the life of a fool, per Ecclesiastes – and the rest of Scripture. Ecclesiastes’s Preacher grounds these words in the reality that all of us are facing death, and that we are incapable of fully understanding God’s purposes in this world. If we revere God, only then are we free to fully enjoy the sweet parts of our lives.
In the bitterness that has saturated 2020, it has been a worthwhile discipline for me to notice those sweet parts instead of suffocating every night in the acid air of fear. Pleasure can not quell that fear. In fact, untethered to God, the quest for pleasure may drive fear underground to ferment and rot in our souls. The Preacher in Ecclesiastes says, “However many years anyone may live, let them enjoy them all. But let them remember the days of darkness, for there will be many. Everything to come is meaningless.” (11:8)
There is much darkness in our world right now. If there is pleasure in my life, I pray I have eyes to see it, no matter how inconsequential it seems, because it is not, per the Preacher.
And may I remember to breathe deeply in the middle of the night, as long as God gives me breath.
Note: This is the Bible study book I’ve used for both studies. I commend it to you if you or your group is looking for a reliable companion to guide your own study of Ecclesiastes.