Ecclesiastes (Qohelet, in Hebrew) is one of my favourite books of the Bible, a beautiful and at times disturbing work, hard to translate in places. It opens by setting the scene, beginning with the great cry often rendered ‘vanity,’ or ‘all is in vain,’ but perhaps better rendered ‘ephemeral and fleeting as breath.’ From the moment of birth until the moment of death, every breath is but momentary; insubstantial; cannot be seen, except when the air is cold; cannot be held in the hand. Having breathed in, you cannot breathe in again without first breathing out: every breath must be surrendered. And yet, every breath is a gift, upon which everything else we do depends.
The scene setting continues, with observational insight into the world God has given us to experience and enjoy. The dependability of day following night, the sun rising and setting and rising again. The security of knowing that the sun will rise again tomorrow. The water cycle: clouds dropping rain on the land, water, flowing in streams to the sea, from where it evaporates to form new clouds, and begin again.
The earth is so full of things to experience, in time we are wearied, overwhelmed: it is too much for us to hold on to, however hard we may try.
And, in the end, we are told, there will be no remembrance. This was deeply disturbing to an ancient people for whom not forgetting was so important; and it is disturbing for us today, who fear the erasure of memory to dementia more viscerally than cancer. And yet, to let go of memory, like letting go of breath, is both necessary and a gift.
There are different forms of memory. There is semantic memory: facts and figures, which have no personal impact. The Battle of Hastings took place in 1066. You have already, long ago, let go of almost every semantic memory, the many things you were taught at school. There is simply so much that can be known that, were we not able to let go, we would be utterly overwhelmed.
Then there is procedural memory: skills you have learnt, such as being able to play the piano, or drive a car. Some of these will remain with you forever. Others, again, we let go, as they are no longer required, or must be replaced with new procedures.
And then there is episodic memory: our memories of things we have experienced. Episodic memory is not factual recall. Episodic memory creates stories, in search of wholeness, and the stories we tell ourselves we edit and re-write repeatedly, in search of that wholeness. Hence siblings will remember the same event very differently, one recalling and another responding, ‘That never happened!’ The goal of episodic memory is wholeness, and this requires that we let go of certain things, whole narratives of the story we have told ourselves. This is the reason why we need forgiveness, to forgive others and to forgive ourselves. The ultimate goal of episodic memory is to let go, and surrender ourselves; trusting (as we do every time we breathe out) that we are known and held and loved by God, from before our birth and beyond our death, through every change, in the eternal moment.
Vanity of vanities, says
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains for ever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down,
and hurries to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south,
and goes round to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they continue to flow.
All things are wearisome;
more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
‘See, this is new’?
It has already been,
in the ages before us.
The people of long ago are not remembered,
nor will there be any remembrance
of people yet to come
by those who come after them.