I’ve made huge lists of everything I’ve done in my short life. I’ve accomplished so much, and I can show you my work, says Solomon.
It’s too familiar. Lists have been a lifeline for me as a working mom, a salvation of things that would have been forgotten. I’ve accomplished so much, I think. I remembered to buy peas and Band-Aids at the store. I signed and sent the weekly reading logs to school with my sons. I vacuumed one bathroom. So, I pat myself on the back, taking pride in the accomplishment of one day.
But does checking things off mean something? It might be encouraging at that moment, for that day, but weeks and months from now, will it mean anything? After all, Solomon darkly reminds us that man takes nothing with him at death (Ecclesiastes 5:15).
The memory of what we’ve accomplished in the day-to-day will fade. What we’ve literally done will too. How do we view our work, then, especially since so much of what we do is invisible? Is it only through labor that our lives have meaning?
In “The Noonday Demon,” Jonathan Malesic addresses these same questions as he describes his journey with burnout. “I had excellent job security, autonomy, and benefits; the anxiety I felt was not over whether work would support me, but the existential value it provided. Teaching offered a constant stream of validation.” Validation, however, was temporary. Malesic points out that “work isn’t always designed to accomplish something tangible,” and this in itself often leads to a restless anxiety over our life’s worth. The desert fathers term it acedia, a restlessness that breeds doubt. Solomon echoes the same emptiness as he questions the value of our lives—Who will have control over all the fruit of my toil into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun? (2:19 NIV).
But Solomon isn’t the only one surveying man’s worth. In Can’t Even: How Millenials Became the Burnout Generation (Mariner Books, 2020), Anne Helen Petersen contrasts our value as a worker versus our value as a person and how these relate to a feeling of precarity. “Every day, we all have a list of things that need to get done, places where our mental energy must be allocated first. But that energy is finite, and when you keep trying to pretend that it isn’t—that’s when burnout arrives.”
Petersen also refers to it as a “melancholic world-weariness” that comes from being part of a work system. As Petersen analyzes the American history of work ethic, she shows how the ideals of the American Dream have led to overwork, reducing people to “work robots.” From education to finance, Petersen shows that overwork has infected society. She writes, “Like the machines we work with, our worth is measured in our ability to create value for those who employ us. Think about any hiring process, or salary negotiation. The employer asks themselves: What is this person worth?” We become numbers and assets and wonder why we feel such discontent.
Emptiness, world-weariness, acedia, restlessness. Northrup Frye describes this seeming malaise in a singular way. He suggests Solomon, or the teacher as it’s translated, is “not a weary pessimist tired of life: he is a vigorous realist determined to smash his way through every locked door of repression in his mind.” It’s like the mind is its own repressor according to Frye, but with reason and wisdom, Solomon hammers away at this idea of work and worth with persistent questions.
Early in Ecclesiastes, much of Solomon’s perspective concerning work is experiential. As a ruler, his heart is guided by wisdom as he sought to improve his kingdom and become great, to surpass all who were before me (2:9), an interesting turn of phrase. He does not dress down his ambition. Solomon admits to seeking greatness and confesses that he built, planted, bought slaves and flocks, gathered gold and treasures and concubines and found pleasure in them. His pride in accomplishment is clear, and he adds that he took pleasure in his toil (2:4-10). Josef Pieper addresses the same balance: “…man understands the work and accepts it for what it really is, namely the ‘tilling of the field’ which always includes both happiness and toil, satisfaction as well as sweat of the brow, joy as well as the consumption of vital energy.”
Wisdom and work go hand in hand, and it’s hard to see why that wouldn’t be good. As a parent, as a teacher, I do take pride in the work of my day. I may not be building a kingdom with flocks and palaces, but I hope I’m building character into my sons and students as I care for them. Sometimes I can see when my work is fruitful, which motivates me to continue. That in itself is a satisfying pleasure.
Solomon concedes that any man can find pleasure in his work, that this too is a gift from God. Yet he quickly counters that he found all of these pursuits to be empty, ungraspable, a striving after wind (2:11). I don’t think that he negates the good he saw, that man can and does find pleasure in his work. It is a truth—work can be meaningful—and Malesic acknowledges this in “What Are We Doing?”: “Your work isn’t valuable because it creates revenue. It’s valuable because it creates human connections.” Those connections, those relationships help bring meaning, and more than that, they surpass the technology-driven workplace.
Both Malesic and Petersen blame a societal system, capitalism, for reducing a person’s dignity, for identifying a person with their job. In this system, worth is placed on employment. If employment is in doubt, the workers put in more hours. In “The Noonday Demon,” Malesic argues, “If they’re working hard, then they must have worth as persons. Of course, nothing can ever give the workers a final assurance that they will keep their job or status…in American capitalism there are few guarantees of security or limits on the amount someone can work. As long as your status is in question, you have cause for anxiety and thus the motivation to keep working.” There is little chance of pride or pleasure in this broken system.
How then do we fight the futility of a system? Petersen argues for reform in the workplace, education, and even parenting while also acknowledging the cult of busyness—“The causes are systemic. Which is why the solutions have to be holistic.” Petersen says we must act, vote, advocate solutions that will make our lives and everyone else’s better. It’s horribly vague. Somehow this is not where I thought Petersen was going when I began to read her book. If you present a problem, don’t you present a solution? Petersen confesses she doesn’t have a solution. She hopes we can change by seeing ourselves as “valuable simply because we are.” We exist. We’re alive.
We’re valuable because we’re alive? All of her research efforts, all of her anecdotes and interviews that call us to understand the overwork systems in America come down to an almost existentialist statement hauntingly similar to Sartre’s idea of existence preceding essence. Perhaps Petersen meant to merely present a history of work culture. Regrettably, her argumentative style promised more. She produced a debate that did not call for a conclusion but rather called for introspection. Petersen stopped short of redefining work, posing a realistic solution, or even a hopeful perspective as Malesic does.
In “What Are We Doing?” Malesic proposes meaningful work that promotes relationship. He refers to this as “legible” work. One example tells of a doctor who grew tired of record-keeping and left a large hospital system to work in a rural clinic where he spent considerably more time with each patient, each person. Medicine was about caring for a fellow human, not six hours of notes every day. The doctor described his work now as “life-giving.” In contrast, work revolving around automation is “illegible” because it disconnects us from the camaraderie, loyalty, or significance of what we do.
Malesic writes, “Whether or not work is a productive activity, it is always a social relation. Even when you don’t know what you’re doing, you may still find meaning in the stories and relationships the work makes possible.” This viewpoint is far more hopeful than what Petersen could picture. Further, Malesic does acknowledge that remote work poses another problem that might find a solution in prayer—“The answer might be to go inward and deeper, to spiritualize our work while placing it in a larger, cosmic — if invisible — context.” As he describes the work of praying nuns, Malesic makes clear that prayer helps others that we cannot see just as it connects us all on an unseen plain.
Solomon, too, perceives this parcel of hope in a life of wisdom and in a life lived in the fear of God. For him, wielding wisdom with all of his toil did not elicit a lasting peace or contentment. That may be key to understanding his conclusion. I think the work, the toil, the busyness, can detract from the life of wisdom. Solomon sees that accomplishment can bring less reward in his journey, especially if we live life with accomplishment as our end. But Frye’s words still ring in my ears—“Wisdom is the way out.” Could it be that wisdom offers a way out of the sense of futility of work?
The most distinct theme of Ecclesiastes becomes clear as Solomon reasons through the meaning of wisdom and the meaning it has for his life—he regularly affirms that God is sovereign, both as creator and Lord. From the beginning of the book, Solomon acknowledges God, the one who gives man what he has, either good or bad, and the one who tests man. But for Solomon, God, the giver of wisdom, also demands worship and obedience. Solomon must offer a pure sacrifice to God when he goes to His house or he too would be considered a fool (5:1). God is the one you must fear (5:7).
This is relationship, beyond even what Malesic described. Solomon concedes that he, as a man, will never be able to understand all that he desires to, even the ways of God, but Solomon knows he must pursue God: then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out (Ecclesiastes 8:17).
Man simply cannot know everything, and perceiving that fact alone is also wisdom. Frye echoes the idea that the cyclical nature of life shows us “nothing new under the sun applies to wisdom but not to experience, to theory but not to practice. Only when we realize that nothing is new can we live with an intensity in which everything becomes new.” Wisdom does teach us to recognize our human limits, to live contentedly, to see connection and relationship beneath the rule of God because knowing God, being in relationship with God, produces wisdom.
Throughout Ecclesiastes, Solomon persistently acknowledges not just God’s existence, but also His very presence and omnipotence. For Solomon, man’s desire for wisdom cannot be separated from knowing his Creator. We may seek wisdom, desire instruction, and even heed what we learn, but our wisdom will always be limited. Solomon’s advice then to us is that of a life of temperance and knowing God:
Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time? It is good that you should take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them (7:16-18).
The End of Burnout: Why Work Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives by Jonathan Malesic will be published January 2022 by the University of California Press.