Regardless of your religious inclinations, or whether you believe in God or not, it is undeniable that the Bible contains many passages and teachings that are useful and practical. One such passage is from the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. In Chapter 4 it described something very profound that struck me. It is about how people keep chasing after the wind.

What does chasing after the wind mean? Have you tried doing it yourself? Perhaps not, because you know that you cannot see the wind. You cannot grasp it nor catch it. It always slips away from your hands. Since you cannot catch it at all, chasing it would be pointless.

Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun:

I saw the tears of the oppressed—
and they have no comforter;
power was on the side of their oppressors—
and they have no comforter.
And I declared that the dead,
who had already died,
are happier than the living,
who are still alive.
But better than both
is the one who has never been born,
who has not seen the evil
that is done under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 4:1-3

With all the problems that the world is in right now like global warming and pandemics, sometimes I wonder if it is better for someone not to be born in this world. Am I doing a disservice to my daughter when I brought her here?

Then I realized this thought comes from personal arrogance. Am I the judge and jury on how and why others should live? If I don’t think like this for other people, why am I thinking like this for my own child? Why make my child conform to what I believe is true?

This pessimistic view on life serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy. If there are no young people to think of new ideas and strive for what they believe is right, then this world will stagnate and rot.

And I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

Fools fold their hands
and ruin themselves.
Better one handful with tranquility
than two handfuls with toil
and chasing after the wind.

Ecclesiastes 4:4-6

All achievement comes from envy. This may sound like a very harsh conclusion, but I think a bit of honesty is needed here.

Why do we work hard? One common reason is that we want to have money to be able to sustain our lives. But if that is true, then most of us would not strive for more money once we have the basic necessities covered. Would we be content and happy if we have enough food, comfortable clothes, and a simple house?

Unless you are a monk, then the answer is no. We want bigger and better things. When we see others and perceive that they have something we don’t, we imagine having those things, and then do what we can to get them as well. We often hear it as “keeping up with the Joneses”. In more formal terms, this is hedonic adaptation. A luxury, once enjoyed, becomes a necessity.

But the teaching says that we are just deluding ourselves. If in the pursuit of achievement and wealth we diminish our tranquility, then perhaps the price is too much. If in our quest for wealth and prestige we are unable to sleep at night and our house is in disarray, then we have been chasing the wind.

Again I saw something meaningless under the sun:

There was a man all alone;
he had neither son nor brother.
There was no end to his toil,
yet his eyes were not content with his wealth.
“For whom am I toiling,” he asked,
“and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?”
This too is meaningless—
a miserable business!

Ecclesiastes 4:7-8

If our work or basically any other pursuit for achievement results in us feeling unhappy or just plain snuffed out of life, then it is time to re-evaluate.

This happened to me a few years ago. I wanted to improve my coding skills so I decided to take some training online in addition to ramping up my side projects. This meant that my free time after work (which was also stressful sometimes) was spent doing things that honestly felt like work. After a few weeks of this, I was really tired and one night just broke down and cried.

I decided to restart again and abandoned my previous efforts. Sleep became a priority and I also started playing games to let go of the pent-up stress. In a few months I recovered completely and now have been doing my side projects again, but this time more aware that I need to take care of myself in the process. It means nothing to succeed only to die of exhaustion at the finish line.

It is not bad to enjoy the fruits of your labor. We are not living just so we can accumulate wealth for its own sake. Sometimes we do need to step back, move out, and smell the flowers.

Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their labor:
If either of them falls down,
one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
and has no one to help them up.
Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
But how can one keep warm alone?
Though one may be overpowered,
two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

This highlights the importance of family and relationships. Personally I struggle with this sometimes as I feel like I can do it much better if I do it alone. My employer once said that I was like a “lone wolf”. I do understand that while you can do it on your own sometimes, you can’t do it all the time or not as effectively as when you have someone else to help you.

We can’t be “on” 24 hours per day 7 days a week. We need to sleep, we get sick sometimes, and there are unexpected events that disrupt our routine. During these times we recognize the importance of a partner or a team to help us out.

Better a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king
who no longer knows how to heed a warning.
The youth may have come from prison to the kingship,
or he may have been born in poverty within his kingdom.
I saw that all who lived and walked under the sun
followed the youth, the king’s successor.
There was no end to all the people who were before them.
But those who came later were not pleased with the successor.
This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

Ecclesiastes 4:13-16

The verse is a little confusing, so here is a simpler story. There was a young man that came from a very humble background (from prison or from a poor family) who eventually became king. The young king thought that the previous king (whom he replaced) was a foolish king. The people also thought this as well and rallied behind the young king.

However, as the years passed and the young king became old himself, the same people who rallied behind him now called him foolish. He eventually became the one he replaced.

This story repeats itself over and over throughout generations. This is, again, like chasing the wind. A ruler will find that people’s minds are fickle and his supporters may try to overthrow him and replace him with a new one on the next opportunity. Someone famous today and enjoys popular opinion can become a pariah much sooner than he thinks. Chasing for power and fame for one’s gain is foolish.

Will you keep chasing the wind?

As humans, we are weak and prone to striving for power, wealth, and fame. While this is not bad in and of itself, we need to think. Are your actions and plans in line with what you want in life, or are you just doing what you see others are doing? Do you sleep comfortably at night, knowing that you did good to the world, or are you scared of the harm that others might do to you? Are you giving away your life to your work while neglecting your relationships with others?

Perhaps by doing these seemingly pointless things, life may be fun and exciting. But in the end, we often find that these things are all for naught. And when that day comes, will you look back and realize that you have been chasing the wind all along?

Photo by Samuel Austin on Unsplash

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