Robert Fulghum’s 1986 bestselling book title All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten is something that I still hear quoted. I suppose this is probably because its simplicity both captures our imaginations and calms our anxiety. It is comforting to consider the thought that we already know all that we need to know in order to solve our problems of social discord and create harmony. But Rodney King articulated a similar sentiment in the form of a question, when in the face of the riots occurring in Los Angeles after the acquittal of the officers who beat him he asked: “Why can’t we all just get along?”
We may have learned it in Kindergarten, but adulthood has a way of diluting and maybe erasing our memories.
It’s hard to argue with the truth of Fulghum’s assertion or King’s question. The solution they both point to is pretty obvious. If we want social order and communal harmony we need to acknowledge the value of all human beings, honor difference, restrain our reactive or violent impulses, learn to share, and grant one another the space to grow. Or as Jesus put it, we need to treat others the way we would like to be treated.
Voila! Problem solved! Now let’s get on with life as we live into this value.
But of course the problem isn’t solved. While we know what it would take to solve it, we somehow keep failing in implementation. Wisdom allows us to observe the causes of our discord and posit the simple solution of stepping back from those behaviors that perpetuate the problem, but unfortunately it cannot explain or heal whatever it is that sustains us in our endless chain of destructive behaviors.
I think this conundrum is one of the reasons why I have come to love the Book of Ecclesiastes. I love the honesty of this book that over and over again points to the absurdities of human behavior and history. It simply tells it like it is. This preacher in Ecclesiastes proposes no solution; he simply stares full face into the problem and chooses to continue to work with life’s questions. Yet he does so acknowledging that while he may not have enough knowledge to figure out the “whys” of life, there is One who does, and we would do well to engage life in such a way that we acknowledge the presence of this One who made us.
Seasons come and go. There are times of war and peace, times of birth and death, times for sowing and reaping. Yet as these seasons come and go we do not have enough “eternity in our hearts” to figure out the whole picture. So we continue to struggle to figure it out, sometimes making progress and fostering life and at other times making old mistakes that merely add to history’s pile of death and decay.
Yet the preacher doesn’t just cynically shrug at life’s absurdity and say “deal with it.” He doesn’t, like philosopher Albert Camus, point to Sisyphus pushing his rock up the hill only to watch it roll back down and advise us to seek our happiness within the limits of this absurdity. He invites us to do something that will ultimately give shape and meaning to our lives. He invites us to consider the God who made us and to be on the lookout for God’s presence even in the most confounding circumstances of life.
Confronted with the frightful realities of the shaking mountains and raging and foaming waters of the earth, the Psalmist in Psalm 46 finds solace in the assurance that “the Lord of hosts is with us [and] the God of Jacob is our refuge.” St. Paul tells us the same truth when he writes “whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8). The stabilizing truth that greets us irrespective of the ebb and flow of life’s seasons is Jesus’ promise that he will be with us always. While this steadfast presence and companionship may not explain every mystery or solve every problem, it does provide us with a stabilizing relationship that enables us to navigate the twists and turns of life. And so we pray, “O Christ, surround us.” Show us where you are, and so expose us to the truth of who we are created to be.
(Dave Rohrer, 3/4/19)