“Cross out the word ‘vanities’ and replace it with ‘vapor.’ It’s a vapor of vapors. Life is temporary. Nothing lasts,” my professor explained. I waited for him to continue the lecture but instead he said, “Go on, do it. Now. Everyone. Find the mis-translation and rewrite it as vapor.”
He then did a common science demonstration showing how vapor worked. It was the kind of science experiment you would do in the fourth grade. Afterward, he put us into groups of three and had to answer, “What do mean by vapor?” We talked about how vapor is short-lived and empty and impossible to grasp. It seems to be unpredictable. Over the next few weeks, we would go on to read Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Camus. But we started with Ecclesiastes. Though he was an atheist and I was a person faith, that correction in translation shaped my world forever.
If you’re not familiar with book, Ecclesiastes is a likely fictional first-person account of King Solomon. Though he has spent decades amassing a fortune, engaging in massive creative projects, studying wisdom, and pursuing pleasure, he is experiencing an existential crisis. What is the purpose of creative works that will eventually crumble and decay? Why build a legacy if you’ll ultimately be forgotten? The book seems, at a glance, to be almost sardonic. But then then I ran into this verse and it stuck with me forever. I read it and re-read it and memorized it by accident.
“A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?”
It’s easy to write this off as “eat and drink and be merry” or “eat and drink, for tomorrow you die.” But for me, this verse is hopeful as someone who teaches and who engages in creative work. I want to explore this verse for a moment.
Life is a Vapor
According to Ecclesiastes, life is a vapor. The first implication is that things are temporary. I’ve written before that my goal is to make something new every day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. And yet, I also know that projects might fail. In fact, many projects will be a failed experiment.
In terms of making a difference, I have little control over the effects of my teaching. For all the talk of learning outcomes and being “highly effective,” teaching is complex and multivariate. I never truly know if I am having an impact. And often the results of the impact remain unknown. Years ago, I abandoned the superhero narrative and instead chose the idea of faithfulness the craft of teaching rather than measurable results.
If I truly believe that life is a vapor, it actually frees me up to make mistakes and take big, bold creative risks. It means I will never define success on the end results. I will never define myself by accomplishments. Instead, I will embrace the journey of creative work.
If life is a vapor, it also means life moves quickly. As I watch my kids grow up, I feel excited and grateful for who they are but also there’s this small feeling of loss and this sense that it’s all just happening way too fast. It’s not a sense of regret. There’s not “Cats in the Cradle” element to it. But there is a sense in which it all just seems to happen so quickly.
Two years ago, the pandemic struck and our world changed forever. A month into it, my friend Chad died and I was unable to attend his memorial service. Over the last year, my mother-in-law had a heart attack and we almost lost her. Our close friend was diagnosed with cancer. Nearly every weekend we have a meal together. We’ve cried together and laughed together and told stories. Each time my wife and I walk back to our home, I am reminded how fortunate we are to have another day with a dear friend.
If I truly believe that life is a vapor, I am able to enjoy the moment. I am able to be present instead of dreaming of the distant future. I never want to live for the weekend or live for retirement or live for that moment when life seems to be better. This is why I’ve embraced two daily habits over the last few years. The first is a ten-minute guided meditation. This reminds me to be present in the moment. The second is a gratitude journal. I want to remain cognizant that life is a gift.
Life is a Gift
This last weekend, I spent Friday doing a keynote and two sessions. During the keynote, I felt in the zone. I lost all sense of time and place and simply felt the joy of doing something creative. I experienced what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi descibes as flow. If you’re not familiar, here’s a video about it:
For me, getting lost in my creative work is what it means to “find satisfaction in your work.”
On Friday evening, I was able to hang out with my friend, Ross, and enjoy one of the best steaks I’d ever eaten. Moments like this are a reminder that you really can’t do much better than to enjoy your food and your drink.
The next morning, Christy flew in and we spent the day in New York city. We walked from Times Square down to the 9-11 memorial, stopping at an Irish pub and a fashion museum along the way. We later watched Wicked and we spent hours laying down next to each other just talking. Telling stories. Sharing our dreams. Being vulnerable. Laughing. The next day, we went to the Museum of Modern Art and took a stroll through Central Park. As we flew back home together, I kept thinking, “I am the luckiest man in the world.”
This is the heart of Ecclesiastes 2:23-24. This is from the hand of God. This is grace. Or if you’re a secular humanist, this is a gift from the universe. This is where life is found. Years ago, I made a sketch video that I re-post on my birthday each year. It’s the idea that life is not meant to be easy or smooth. It’s meant to be epic.
I also created another video, inspired by the book of Ecclesiastes. It’s the idea that the good life is found in the little things.
When I was a kid, I thought the epic life was the big life. You know, hit the game-winning home run. Slay a dragon. Conquer a distant land. When I got older, I still believed that the epic life meant doing big things. Make more money. Travel the world. Get more status. Make a name for yourself. Be recognized for your excellence. Do something memorable. Make something big.
I viewed the epic life as a battle to be fought or a game to be won.
But what if the epic life isn’t really like this?
What if it’s all about tiny, humbler experiences that ultimately build a better life?
When I think of my dad, I remember the hours spent tossing the baseball back and forth or playing video games in the living room or the times we went to the lake. And when I think of my mom, I remember the long talks and the art projects and the trips to the bookstore and the hours spent playing Uno on a rainy day. Or that time we used tennis rackets to form a family air guitar band.
Sometimes I forget this.
I think life is found in doing a big project that gets tons of attention or in delivering more keynotes or having a successful book or gaining the reputation as an expert in education.
But that’s not where life is found.
Life is a journey with tiny destinations. It’s found in building a pillow fort or a Lego set or gathering together for a meal. It’s found in writing a story or painting a picture without worrying about numbers and metrics. It’s found in serving others and making a difference. It’s found in exploring ideas and geeking out just for the fun of it.
It’s found in staring out in wonder at the canvas stars and being overwhelmed with the universe and then watching the same amazement on the eyes of my kids. It’s found in spending a life with the woman I fell in love with over a decade ago and who still never ceases to amaze me.
That’s the epic life.
A Final Hope
Ultimately, I don’t know if life is really a vapor. None of us know for sure. For personal reasons that I won’t delve into, I am hopeful that I will someday see Chad again and we’ll have another pint together. I am hopeful that even if we lose our friend to cancer, that won’t be the end of the story. I am hopeful that the legacy of things like teaching and creative work will ultimately last beyond the here and now. Today, I turn 42 and I am feeling that sense that life is a vapor moving quickly. Sometimes that makes sad but most of the time it allows me to feel grateful. Each day is a gift and I feel so incredible fortunate for this epic life.