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David Cowles

Oct 10, 2023

“Every day for 80+ years, we imagine ourselves to be someone we are not, and we work tirelessly, and fruitlessly, to become that person. 'That' is Vanity.”

“Vanity, vanities, everything is vanity.” So begins Ecclesiastes, a book of Old Testament Wisdom literature, traditionally attributed to Solomon but probably written many centuries later. The text simply lists the author as ‘Koheleth’ (The Speaker).

‘Vanity’ is one translation of an Aramaic word (havel) that also denotes ‘absurdity, futility, emptiness’. In the languages of the ancient Middle East, it was customary for one word to support several related but distinct meanings. The meaning of a particular word is like a chord in music: multiple notes produce a single sonic impression; multiple meanings, a single semantic expression. 

In this way, Jewish scripture presages James Joyce and various other 20th century wordsmiths. Words are deliberately chosen, not for their specificity, but for their ambiguity. Like chords in a symphony, words are heard vertically as well as horizontally. All the acceptable ‘meanings’ are experienced together, as overtones. 

Reminiscent of Janus, the two faced god, Vanity and Idolatry are two aspects of the Void. They are examples of what Alfred North Whitehead called, “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” We fall prey to this fallacy whenever we mistake a map for its territory or a phantom for what’s real. 

“It’s life’s illusions I recall, I really don’t know life at all.” (Joni Mitchell) Well said! If we treat these illusions as ‘life itself’, we succumb to Whitehead’s fallacy. Idols are paradigmatic examples of ‘misplaced concreteness’. We invest them with ‘ultimate reality’ when in fact they are ‘utterly empty’: Birthday piñatas without the candy; hype without hope! To quote Wendy’s (and Walter Mondale): “Where’s the Beef?” 

Vanity is the B-side of Idolatry, that chart topping hit single from The Void. We are ‘vain’ to the extent that we idolize ourselves: Narcissus. The idol and the idolater become one. When we confer ‘absolute reality’ on what is ‘totally vacuous’, we empty ourselves in the process. We become T.S. Eliot’s ‘hollow men’ (sic). In the words of George W. Bush, we’re “all hat, no cattle!” 

How so? You have heard it said that we are made “in the image and likeness of God”. But if our God is the Void, and we are made in its image and likeness, then… 

In the music industry, A and B-sides sometimes get inverted. Take the Beatles, for example: Strawberry Fields, which changed popular music forever, was supposed to be the B-side of Penny Lane, which didn’t. Likewise, we imagine that Vanity is a product of Idolatry, while the reverse is true!

What we know about the world is what we know through personal experience - first, second or nth-handed. There is an objective world, but what we think we know about that world is a function of what we do know about ourselves. It appears that all living organisms have some sense of an ‘external world’. We may even wish to designate such a sense as one of the criteria for being considered ‘alive’. 

Each adult human body consists of 30 trillion eukaryotic (nuclear) cells; on average, each such cell contains about 1,000 prokaryotic (non-nuclear) mitochondria, descendants of ancient bacteria that have elected to take up residence within the cell, becoming permanent, reproducing participants in cellular ecology. 

In addition, each adult human body houses about 100 trillion ‘freestanding’ bacteria - ‘fellow travelers’ in 20th century neo-Marxist terminology. Unlike the mitochondria, these ‘free riders’ elected not to join the Party (i.e., the cell); nonetheless, they make critical contributions to the organism’s overall success.

Quadrillion cells (10^15) - each one a living, breathing, eating, sensing and reproducing organism, each with its own map of the external world, extrapolated from its ‘personal experience’. Wow!

According to Heidegger, each of us is unexpectedly ‘thrown’, tiny, defenseless, and afraid, into an utterly alien world. From our first cry in the delivery room to our last gasp in hospice, we never stop searching for an identity, a niche - a way to feel safe, to fit into the world, to have purpose. What’s it all about, Alfie?” 

Every day for 80+ years, we imagine ourselves to be someone we are not, and we work tirelessly, and fruitlessly, to become that person. That is Vanity! As an adult, I’ve imagined myself to be an intellectual, an educator, a gang leader, a revolutionary, a politician, an entrepreneur, a theologian, and (now) a writer – to single out just a few of my cherished personae

Of course, I am not now, nor have I ever been, any of those things. My grandfather said it best, “I’m not the man I used to be…and never was.” QED

Children, of course, do not have the option of playing Cock Robin; but that only makes it more difficult for them to curate an identity, to create a niche. Kids see the world through the prism of family, so they see the stability of the family as Job One. 

A family is like a mobile. A new arrival must position itself so as not to disrupt the balance of that mobile. To that end, we make ourselves the uber-responsible first child, the mischievous Malcolm-in-the-middle, the adored prince or princess, the helpless ‘baby’, etc. This is why children invariably feel themselves to blame when families fall apart. In their minds, they are to blame; they failed. They did not do their duty, they did not maintain the family’s integrity, its balance. 

So, is everything Vanity? Well, if your God is the Void and all things are empty (idols), then yes, “everything is Vanity and a chase after wind”, including you. We don’t like things to be either/or, black or white; we live in the epoch of gray, the color of indeterminacy. But Torah sets things straight, “I set before you life and death, therefore choose life…(for) I am the Lord your God, you shall not put other gods before me.”


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