Literary Interpretation of Ecclesiastes: The Power Of Loss And Death
Let's Go Down, Down, Down
In this verse of Ecclesiastes, there is a teaching of loss and death, one that echoes in all major world religions: losing increases detachment and gives people freedom more than winning does. Not that winning is bad; in fact, everyone wants to win, but it's much easier to win when you look at the advantages of the losses, which are inevitable for all. Here are the lines that speak of this wisdom, taken from Book 7 of Ecclesiastes:
[[ A good name is better than precious ointment,
And the day of death than the day of one's birth
It is better to go to the house of mourning
Than to go to the house of feasting,
For that is the end of all men;
And the living will take it to heart.
Sorrow is better than laughter
For by a sad countenance the heart is made better.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning
But the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.]]
Especially today, in a culture that favors the light side, the good news, the laughter, the checking-out and escapism of feel-good drugs, the darkness of loss and death remains superior for strengthening the soul. Why do you think so many writers and artists have a melancholy temperament, and yet at the same time it is those very people who seem most likely to seek meaning, profound articulations, and the deep seas of wisdom! It's sometimes seen as a bad thing that needs to be fixed, but maybe grief and sorrow are the best teachers of all, and moreover, the desire to "fix" them is the exact problem. Perhaps crying is the shedding of the past, the releasing of toxins, while laughter too often is used to mask the buried residue of wounds we don't want to look at.
On the more external level, loss of people and loss of things can often be a freedom from dependence of those things, from a crutch that is no longer necessary, for a chasing after outside remedies to paste onto our identities, building them up in a chase for perfection and validation that never ends. If anything, the book of Ecclesiastes is ingenious for pointing out the lowest common denominator of all: death and dust. It's at once the destruction of everything held dear and at the same time freedom from it, alas, complete and perfect freedom. The Hindu concept of "Die while living," is palpable in Ecclesiastes, the awareness of death is the freedom from the fear of life and all of life's apparent dangers. Nothing is dangerous on earth - you're going to die anyway! And in death, all is lost; the more attachment to the accumulation of things, the more "adding on," the more of a shock the subtraction of everything is at the end.
And paradoxically, the old law that in order to get anything you must be detached from getting it - this is the way. Detachment is learned best through loss, and if loss is fully mastered, as a concept, one begins to understand that nothing is ever lost because no one ever has anything to begin with. As Leonard Cohen sings in his song, Passing Through, the earth is just a temporary station, where we enter with nothing and leave with nothing. This is guaranteed and universal - so why all this focus on all this stuff and this civilization we obsess about endlessly?