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Restlessness is Not New, But It is Pervasive

Ecclesiastes can help us in our quest for rest.

man walking alone

Restlessness is everywhere. Our work. At home. In church, or digital church. Seeing the same four walls each day, for many of us still working remotely, creates a restlessness in and of itself, not to mention the question of changing work's worth in society. In a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, "As Pandemic Slows Business, Workers Fret: Is My Job Relevant?", Lauren Weber highlights an undercurrent of restlessness around us. Some people are working, but don’t believe their work is essential. Many are not working, but wish they could to provide for the needs of their families. Others felt they had noble long-term goals in their work (such as mitigating climate change), but are now overwhelmed by the immediate needs around them.

Reading this piece reminded me of my favorite book of the Bible — Ecclesiastes. The fact that Ecclesiates is my favorite book says just as much about me as it does the book, but I have some good company. The writer is brutally honest about the human experience of restlessness. When people have questioned me about how an ancient collection of writings could possibly speak to modern lives, I have asked them if they have ever read Ecclesiates. If they read it, I'll then ask them, "Would you say most of that felt like it could have been written yesterday?" And the consistent reply is "Absolutely."The message that "all is vanity and a striving after the wind" (Ecc 1:8) is experienced in every generation. And the preacher applies it to work, pleasure, relationships, government, religion, wisdom, etc.

Restlessness is everywhere. In Weber's piece, she quotes Amy Wrzesniewski from Yale School of Management in saying "these shocks [in the economy] are opportunities for people to think, 'Does my work matter? And do I matter?,' which is really the question underlying all of this." Then, she adds that the current protests against racism are causing leaders and corporations "to examine whether they have been complicit in perpetuating inequality." Another question of belonging and worth in itself. The article doesn't conclude with a grand resolution to the search for purpose or meaning, nor with policy suggestions for systemic inequities.

Similar again to Ecclesiastes, it shifts to the simple and small opportunities that are also everywhere. Weber highlights a comedian providing comic relief to her friends that are frontline healthcare workers, a financial analyst thinking more intentionally about supporting the small businesses in his community, and a software developer connecting with others in her field in new ways.

The restlessness is so pervasive and the grand resolutions so elusive that we can miss the opportunities to eat, drink, and be merry all around us. The human experience includes our angst and our joys, and this article was faithful to both. If I could add an addendum to Weber's piece, it would come from C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity:

The Christian says, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water...If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death.

None of us know the future of the pandemic and the economic and emotional consequences that will follow. The upcoming school year and national election already seem like they will heighten the restlessness we currently feel. False assurances and grand solutions will become even more tempting for leaders to spout, but should be viewed with the clear-eyed skepticism of the ancient preacher. Honesty and humility will be most helpful.

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