I will accompany this series of photos (all taken the other day on a crisp, chilly evening with Rachel Graves, a friend who is accompanying me on this shoot – helping with logistics and translation) – with a few words that have little to do with the images.
“I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my labor,
and this was the reward for all my toil.
Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless,
a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun.”
When I left home for college 10 years ago, something switched in my brain. A world that had seemed simple and limited suddenly felt wide open – stretched in front of me with a thousand trails through a thousand mountains. I remember a very specific shift, something snapped almost overnight. It is not that my childhood was limited – I had an unbelievable childhood with gracious, loving parents. It was just a matter of growing up, and the world expanding. And boy did it expand.
As the curtain lifted, the possibilities were endless, and I have, in every way humanly possible, sought after every opportunity, tackled down every fleeting want or desire (nearly) and, for lack of a better phrase, sucked the marrow out of my youth. Sometimes when I lie in bed at night and I can’t sleep, I play it all back in my head – sometimes I even make lists. As young as I still am, I feel as though I’ve lived several lifetimes.
Yet I, like nearly every living soul, have been on a singular journey. It is the same journey every man and woman for millennia have been on – the seeking after peace and (ultimately) truth. My faith is a rich part of my existence, but a profession of faith alone does not instill some instant centeredness or transcendence into eternal and immortal peace and rest. Sometimes God is silent – that is, perhaps, his greatest mystery.
No matter what country I’m in, wherever, with whomever, I always, at the end of the day, lie down for sleep and I have only my own self, my own soul to reconcile. And worry follows me (as with anyone) everywhere. Physical and emotional stresses plague me, not to mention the unexpected, inexplicable tugging of discontentment and dissatisfaction with the now.
And I know I’m not alone in this. I’m just speaking these things here because I want you to know, that wherever you are, whoever you, whatever you have or don’t have, whatever dreams and hopes have or haven’t been grasped or lost, I’m writing to you as someone who can’t think of a wish when I toss a coin in a wishing well to say “Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb, and as everyone comes, so they depart. They take nothing from their toil that they can carry in their hands.” (Ecclesiastes 4:15)
“Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun:
I saw the tears of the oppressed—
and they have no comforter;
power was on the side of their oppressors—
and they have no comforter.
And I declared that the dead,
who had already died,
are happier than the living,
who are still alive.”
Among the many good things I’ve been fortunate to experience in my short life, I have seen a great deal of suffering. Deep, seemingly endless suffering. Hell on earth, even. I’ve seen natural devastation, war and violence, disease and famine. I’ve seen it up close and personal and it have wallowed in the depths of it. Stewed it in – filthied my hands and feet with it. And this too, brings a storm of discontentment that boils inside me. It can seem that no hope of heaven, however great, is large enough within the limitations of humanity to assuage the reality of the world we live in. One day of news headlines screams this. No matter how the light shines, however brightly, darkness in world such as our is dreadfully persistent.
6 years ago (when I had no idea how much I still had yet to see) I wrote this in my journal:
“Can I please shut my eyes for longer than one-third of it all? Let me sleep infinitely, awaking only long enough to gaze into an orange sunset, or a star-filled sky. Let me light my view only with the sweetness of things, and collapse my window shades at the faintest chance of an eclipse of my golden sun.
Or should I stare weary-eyed always. Sleep only when death forces it. Stare red-eyed into the filthiness of it all and never blink. Will my mind allow it? Will my eyes dry with the raw air of human suffering?
Will grace allow me to gather these thoughts, this wisdom, this darkness I never should have seen, and sort each vision, like an encyclopedia, bringing forth each page, one at a time, to examine it under the finest of microscopes. Will I find, after my sight is blurred from staring day and night at those twitching microbes, a hint of beauty and hope under each membrane?”
Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
“I find no pleasure in them”—
before the sun and the light
and the moon and the stars grow dark,
and the clouds return after the rain;
when the keepers of the house tremble,
and the strong men stoop,
when the grinders cease because they are few,
and those looking through the windows grow dim;
when the doors to the street are closed
and the sound of grinding fades;
when people rise up at the sound of birds,
but all their songs grow faint;
when people are afraid of heights
and of dangers in the streets;
when the almond tree blossoms
and the grasshopper drags itself along
and desire no longer is stirred.
Then people go to their eternal home
and mourners go about the streets.
Lest you think I’m in a dark place to be writing such things, I need to assure you that I am, in fact, quite centered at the moment. At this exact moment, and in general. I know it will be fleeting – for I know myself far too well. But while I bask in this momentary solace, I can’t help but think – “Why? Why now? Why here?”
Though it seems un-wise to try and give an answer (“as dead flies give perfume a bad smell, so a little folly outweighs wisdom…”) for me it is as follows:
Toiling – that word – has so much meaning. It is, as the majority of world religions assert, our great curse. It is the result of our exile – our wandering in the desert. It is that which dirties our hands and soils our hearts. It breaks us. It is our searching for meaning and finding no solace in it. Finding riches, or quiet, or whatever we think our hearts desire and coming up short, still feeling empty.
We are aliens, moving about in an uncomfortable land, breathing uncomfortable air. We weren’t meant for such sleep, such weariness – not the good weariness we feel in the still of the dusk when the days’ work has slowed our busy minds – but the weariness that wrinkles our skin and callouses our hearts.
Last week in Samoa a friend told a group of us that he was once giving a motivational speech to a group of inmates at a prison. He said to them, “Find something you love to do, learn how to make money doing it, and you’ll never work another day in your life. The rest of your life will be a vacation” Possibly a trite proverb, but when I heard it I thought, “yes, that is what I’ve been seeking! That’s what I’m trying to find – and perhaps have found.” I love my work. But the story continues – and the idiom falls short. In response to his statement, a woman spoke up and said, without irony or humor “Then who’s going to clean the shit from the toilet? Who’s vacation is that?”
She might be wiser then Solomon. My answer to that? I have none (“’I am determined to be wise’—but this was beyond me”). Because in all honesty, as much pleasure I find in the work I do (and however thankful I may be for it), I am just as anxious as the next guy.
Perhaps the English language is incapable of supplying us with an alternative to the word “toil” that is not so gruesome – that doesn’t instill such piteous hopelessness, such cyclical brokenness. Maybe the work of our hands becomes toil because we are staring at the ground, and the ugliness in people around us and not at the light – not up and up and up at the heavens, smelling the air and dreaming the future work of our hands.
I have “cleaned shit from the toilet.” It isn’t fun. But I have, at least once, found pleasure in such work. Which speaks volumes to me. It whispers something I believe to be true but can’t seem to grasp in my daily existence… that in riches gained, the logging of experiences, cataloging of friends and connections– I will always find emptiness, ultimately. There must be something deeper, richer, greater. Maybe, strangers on earth that we are, there is a yearning that speaks in a whisper that we can only hear when we release our hands clenched so tightly to the things we thought would make us happy.
My conclusion six years ago to the matter was this… I was a dumb kid and still am, but I re-read these words yearly:
It comes and goes, because it’s ever-presence would numb you to it. It is a whisper. It is a deep rest and an infinite un-rest. It is tension and contraction of the muscles of your soul at work, unweaving the great and terrible mystery, pouring light into a dark void, and, when you’re blinded by it, dimming it so you can properly see the visceral and tangible reality around you.
My momentary joy, my temporary solace, might – maybe – be derived from being forced over the last 2 months to do just that. Not every day and not in every moment. But here and there and more often then at other times in my life. Mind you this was not something I chose – though it was my prayer. But my hands are open – they are open and letting go, and in the in-between-times, working furiously at the soil of the earth, searching the horizon, the sky or the future, for the fruits of my labor.