Wisdom from the Masters for the Care and Maintenance of the Soul
Albert Camus (1913—1960) published a book in 1942 entitled The Myth of Sisyphus that contains an essay bearing a resemblance to the fruitless search for meaningful labor described in the Book of Ecclesiastes as “chasing after the wind.” He bases his discourse on the Greek myth of a King names Sisyphus, condemned by the Gods to roll a boulder up a hill forever only to have it roll down again.
Both Camus and the writer of Ecclesiastes, known only as “The Teacher” (probably King Solomon), argue that life is essentially futile, as evidenced by the fruitless toil that goes nowhere like Sisyphus and his rock. Both, however, find a resolution to the problem which offers hope that pointless tasks can transform into meaningful endeavors.
Ecclesiastes, one of the Biblical Books of Wisdom, recounts the first-person experiences of the Teacher who tries to find meaning in life by studying and experiencing every work his hands can find to do. But hatred for it all emerges because “the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 2:17 NIV).
The Teacher expands his experience to all human enterprises, drawing the same conclusion, “I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (1:14). All work, labor, projects, and tasks end the same way, according to the Teacher—vain, empty things that like the wind always lie beyond one’s grasp.
Wind in Ecclesiastes derives from the Hebrew word rûaḥ, which can mean breath, exhalation, or spirit—something inaccessible that continually changes.
The Teacher uses the wind to describe all the labors under the sun as chasing after the wind. The worker never fully apprehends that for which he strives. He struggles, runs faster, grasps at the wind, but comes up empty. It blows right through her hands. It’s all, “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher” (Ecclesiastes 1:2).
To test his premise that all labor comes to nothing, the Teacher goes out and tries it all. First, he tries education. “I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens” (Ecclesiastes 1:12). The result? “I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind” (1:17).
Next, he tries pursuing pleasure. “I said to myself, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good’” (2:1a). He summarizes the endeavor despairingly. “That also proved to be meaningless” (2:1b).
Then the Teacher takes on grand projects (2:4)—work and labor of every description. He plants vineyards, makes gardens and parks, digs reservoirs for watering. He buys slaves to help with his projects. He accumulates more herds and flocks than anyone before him.
The money pours in as he amasses silver and gold. He surrounds himself with singers and a harem. All “the delights of a man’s heart” (2:8). How does that work out?
Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2:11)
As thousands of businesses reopen in the wake of the coronavirus epidemic, jobs for America’s workforce once again become available. But the unemployment numbers aren’t decreasing commensurate with the upturn in job availability. Two primary factors account for this. Many Americans receive more money from unemployment than they made in their previous jobs, and, according to surveys, a large number despise their old jobs and hope to land alternative employment.
A global poll conducted by Gallup uncovers the startling statistic that out of the world’s one billion full-time workers, only 15% are enthusiastic about their jobs. That means 85% of the world’s workers find their work unfulfilling. The poll shows a statistical improvement in the U.S., where around 30% of the workforce enjoy their jobs. Still, the survey reveals that roughly 70% of American workers dislike their workplace.
Most surveys list management as a primary cause of job dissatisfaction. Specifically, workers believe they don’t receive recognition or reward for their accomplishments.
It’s as if the Teacher had access to the Gallup Poll when he complained, “What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1:3). They chase the wind.
“I want to get somewhere in my job, my profession.” “I hope to work myself to the top.” “I will be the best at what I do.” “I’ll make enough money to enjoy the good life.” “I will retire and lead a life of ease.”
“I’m at a dead-end—burned out.” “I hate going to work; it’s the same thing over and over again.” “I’m not getting anywhere.” “I’ll never make enough to retire on.”
I worked as an educator for thirty years in our public educational system. Like most teachers, I approached my chosen profession with enthusiasm, but soon idealism gave way to realism. Oh, I enjoyed teaching to the very end but grew tired of the pointless tasks required by the administration.
Tragically, for some educators, the joy vanishes altogether. Each day becomes drudgery. Work void of reward without recognition and appreciation. They count the days until the next holiday and until the end of the school year. I found that most educators who fell into this category kept a bit of optimism, hoping that each new school year will be better. They grasp for it but come up empty, chasing after the wind.
Burn-out because of work that goes nowhere may surface in all places of employment and all professions. The statistics bear that out. Many feel condemned or trapped with no hope in sight, condemned like Sisyphus, forever performing futile and hopeless labor.
The story of Sisyphus survives from Greek mythology and tells of King Sisyphus, who displeased the gods because of his misdeeds. They imagined there could be no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor. A stone and a hill provided the means.
The gods require Sisyphus to roll a stone to the top of a mountain from which it would always fall back. Then endlessly repeat the fruitless task.
Albert Camus, in his essay on The Myth of Sisyphus, surmises that the actual torture lies in the king knowing with each step no hope exists for succeeding or finishing the task. Sisyphus comprehends the extent of his wretched condition, and when he descends the hill, that’s all that occupies his mind.
Camus compares the fate of Sisyphus to human labor. “The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd.” But Camus doesn’t leave it there.
What if during the descent something else but the inevitableness of his task occupies Sisyphus’s mind? He cannot change the rolling of the stone. But he can change what he makes of it.
Everyone has a stone to roll of one type or another. All labor, at some point, may become dull and routine, failing to deliver a sense of achievement. The common reasons for work—survival, providing for a family, accomplishment, recognition, material gain, renown, a better life now and later, etc.—lose their flavor in time. They lack a sustainable purpose.
This issue even applies to retirement. Finding meaningful activity after years in the workplace presents a significant challenge for folks entering the golden years. Research by the Institute of Economic Affairs shows retirement increases the probability of suffering from clinical depression by about 40%. The problem that troubles many after retirement concerns, “What’s the purpose for my life now.” Some lose their will to live.
Camus theorizes that Sisyphus learned to find purpose in his rolling stone during his descents as he contemplates his situation. He decides that the rock isn’t his master, attaches himself to higher fidelity, and all is well. The stone still rolls, but with purpose. Not the highest purpose, though.
A survey developed by Robert Half International, the world’s largest staffing services firm, reveals that unhappiness with management accounts for 35 percent of the reasons employees quit their jobs.
Most workers, however, can’t easily give up their work. Finding equivalent employment elsewhere may not be realistic. So, they feel trapped with only a slim possibility of finding pleasure in their work while under the same management. But the Teacher found the solution.
The Teacher understood that “every man should eat and drink and enjoy the good of all his labor” (Ecclesiastes 3:13). Why? “It is the gift of God” (3:13). Bringing God into the equation changes everything. “Every man” should be a point of emphasis in this passage. Every embraces the totality of workers in every honest job or profession on the Earth.
Later, the Teacher writes, “I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work because that is their lot” (3:22). Work is an allotment from God. The salary of the laborer and the profits gained by the business executive all come from God. So ultimately, we work for him! That’s a game-changer.
The Apostle Paul emphasized the concept of God as an employer.
Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. (Colossians 3:23, 24).
Mother Teresa put it eloquently when she said, “There is always the danger that we may just do the work for the sake of the work. This is where the respect and the love and the devotion come in – that we do it to God, to Christ, and that’s why we try to do it as beautifully as possible.”
When Sisyphus no longer viewed his task as punishment and rolled his stone for a higher purpose, his labor became meaningful; even pleasurable. Something more than mindless repetition lay ahead. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy,” Albert Camus wrote.
The place you work and the people you work for may offer little motivation to pursue your labors enthusiastically. But when you get up in the morning, prepare for your day, and set out for the workplace, remember for whom you work. Your work, your salary, your reward, your success, your future comes from God, not the person with “BOSS” on the door.
Same job, new boss. A loving CEO in Christ. “He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7), and a company with excellent benefits in the Kingdom of God. “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). And all right there where you work. This arrangement eliminates chasing after the wind and turns work into pleasure.