After Church – Vanity and Perspective

Narcissus in Love With His Own Reflection

The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

What advantage does man have in all his work which he does under the sun?
A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
Also, the sun rises and the sun sets; and hastening to its place it rises there again.
Blowing toward the south, then turning toward the north, the wind continues swirling along; and on its circular courses the wind returns.
All the rivers flow into the sea, yet the sea is not full. To the place where the rivers flow, there they flow again.
All things are wearisome; man is not able to tell it. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor is the ear filled with hearing.
That which has been is that which will be, And that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there anything of which one might say, “See this, it is new”? Already it has existed for ages which were before us.
11 There is no remembrance of earlier things; And also of the later things which will occur, There will be for them no remembrance among those who will come later still.

I’m growing to love the New American Standard Bible. It gets the tone of these verses from Ecclesiastes 1 just right. It’s not that, like the New Living Translation says, that everything is meaningless; rather, everything has pride in its own existence, when in reality it encompasses nothing of note or worth in the grand scheme of life.

Let us say that, like all humans, I can be incredibly narcissistic. The story of Narcissus, though certainly a Greek myth, lives on in all of us. Narcissus was a child of nymphs who was born with perfect form. He was the most beautiful man on earth (totally hetero, yes); in fact, he was so beautiful that he held pride and hubris in his beauty. Nothing could compare, so who could fall in love when you yourself remains the only thing fit for the love of the most beautiful thing? Narcissus spurns the love of all others for his own. Famously, he succumbs to…himself, and his own image. From Ovid’s Metamorphoses:

There was an unclouded fountain, with silver-bright water, which neither shepherds nor goats grazing the hills, nor other flocks, touched, that no animal or bird disturbed not even a branch falling from a tree. Grass was around it, fed by the moisture nearby, and a grove of trees that prevented the sun from warming the place. Here, the boy, tired by the heat and his enthusiasm for the chase, lies down, drawn to it by its look and by the fountain. While he desires to quench his thirst, a different thirst is created. While he drinks he is seized by the vision of his reflected form. He loves a bodiless dream. He thinks that a body, which is only a shadow. He is astonished by himself, and hangs there motionless, with a fixed expression, like a statue carved from Parian marble.

Flat on the ground, he contemplates two stars, his eyes, and his hair, fit for Bacchus, fit for Apollo, his youthful cheeks and ivory neck, the beauty of his face, the rose-flush mingled in the whiteness of snow, admiring everything for which he is himself admired. Unknowingly he desires himself, and the one who praises is himself praised, and, while he courts, is courted, so that, equally, he inflames and burns. How often he gave his lips in vain to the deceptive pool, how often, trying to embrace the neck he could see, he plunged his arms into the water, but could not catch himself within them! What he has seen he does not understand, but what he sees he is on fire for, and the same error both seduces and deceives his eyes.

Fool, why try to catch a fleeting image, in vain? What you search for is nowhere: turning away, what you love is lost! What you perceive is the shadow of reflected form: nothing of you is in it. It comes and stays with you, and leaves with you, if you can leave!

He can’t look away from his own image because, in his pride, he finds he can only love himself. Yet this very love kills him in the end:

I am he. I sense it and I am not deceived by my own image. I am burning with love for myself. I move and bear the flames. What shall I do? Surely not court and be courted? Why court then? What I want I have. My riches make me poor. O I wish I could leave my own body! Strange prayer for a lover, I desire what I love to be distant from me. Now sadness takes away my strength, not much time is left for me to live, and I am cut off in the prime of youth. Nor is dying painful to me, laying down my sadness in death. I wish that him I love might live on, but now we shall die united, two in one spirit.’

Is this not the very definition of vanity? Being conceited about one’s own accomplishments, looks, and the like? In this context (I know Ecclesiastes was written at a different time and context than Metamorphoses, but stick with me here), we can see that we all act like this. We believe everything we do is so fatally important, so earth-shatteringly devastating that personal feelings become the sum total of our world. In effect, everyone’s a tiny solipsist who only cares for my three favorite friends: me, myself, and I. They are the most important because, hey, who cares about anything else? The greatest conceit and the greatest lie in the world is that YOU are important by virtue of being yourself. I don’t just mean this in the sense of inaction or action; both are, equally, a vanity in themselves. Either my feelings are the most important (“I’m offended” being a particularly annoying feature of said bad quality), or my actions show yours the door (“I serve in Church” being yet another side of the same coin).

That sounds like something against Christianity, doesn’t it? Does not Christianity emphasize that we are, in fact, individuals before God, responsible for our actions? Certainly! But I think, in either case, that we place so much importance on our individual actions, our needs, and our wants that we barely have time to observe, understand and perceive that this is not all there is. I am not all there is. Sin’s a problem, surely enough, but God forgives. God wants me to know Him, absolutely, but God takes His time. It’s not like God was in any hurry to send His Son – I always found that an interesting facet of the whole story. Jesus doesn’t even begin His public ministry until He’s in his early 30s – there’s a whole three decades we know little or nothing about. How’s that for urgency?

This offers us perspective. God’s willing to take His time. He knows it all, He’s seen it all, and He’s utterly sufficient in dealing with you and your issues. If the Bible tells us anything, it’s that we are infinitesimally small in comparison to the universe, that the sovereignty of God reaches beyond understanding, and that the whole record of human history bears little of the vast sum of God’s knowledge. God MAKES us important by virtue of loving us. Things were (and, to a degree, are) good in themselves, but God makes them holy and worthy for His name.

What Ecclesiastes means, then, isn’t a treatise on life’s meaningless; rather, it’s a commentary on our frequent misuse of our own faculties, to declare our work meaningful and USEFUL apart from God’s interaction. What we have experienced has, in fact, already happened at some point in time. God has seen it all; our trials are unique to us, certainly, but the solutions remain the same: fear God and follow His commandments. We just think we’re the most special people in the whole world, when that’s only true in God’s perspective. God gives us many things to enjoy and many ways to serve; don’t fret, worry, and waste your time based on your own hubris and self-importance. There’s no rush; God will do everything in His time, not yours.

It’s nice to know that I’m not in charge of it all, you know? Just do what you’re supposed to do (and what the Bible makes pretty straightforward), take everything in stride and move on. Vanity’s a killer; it shows a lack of a broader perspective, a lack of living beyond yourself. That’s the road to failure if I’ve ever seen it, time and time again.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
  • Narcissus’ story is a strangely popular one to be cited by Christians. I always got distracted by how the story focused on homosexuality (especially by the word’s very definition). As for Ecclesiastes’ emphasis on Vanity? I certainly like that translation more. Good call.

    • @Mjoshua I suppose in Greek society, it wasn’t much recognized as “sin” or “not-sin”; homosexuality and pederasty were just a part of life, truth be told. From our perspective, of course, the Metamorphoses story certainly has this undercurrent, Virgil doesn’t dwell upon it like an immoral thing; the point is that his self-love brings his own ruin. Like in the same way that you accept dwarves, elves, and magical stuff in the LOTR movies simply because they treat it as a matter-of-fact element, and not as SOMETHING SPECIAL.
       
      And that’s bizarrely relevant to homosexuality being a sin, so hey!
       
      Is it popular to cite the whole Narcissus thing in Christian circles? I honestly was thinking about it listening to Alan Lee (the LOTR artist guy) being interviewed and I was like “hey, this has a lot to do with what I was thinking!” And surely we’re reinterpreting the story from its origins, I’d bet.

      • @Zachery Oliver I just remember the story being cited in a couple of books by popular Christian authors like Erwin McManus’ Uprising and I think Francis Chan mentioned it. Maybe a few others. McManus’ usage of it was what struck me in odd fashion. Didn’t bother finishing that book.

        • @Mjoshua Interesting – I’m out of the loop on these things. Probably all that academic training makes me more of a cloistered monk than I like to admit. I think I should read more Francis Chan, now that you mention him.