THE FUTILITY OF "NORMAL"
COVID-19 has already taught us some important lessons that I hope we will take to heart, and that I hope future generations will embrace. We have learned that the status quo is not guaranteed. What felt like “normal” to us a few weeks ago now seems elusive and we wonder whether we will ever sense that again. One of the important lessons of the book of Ecclesiastes is that we often miscalculate what we consider normal. Normal is not a smooth ride through the good life enjoying the scenery. When we experience that, we should not make the mistake of thinking that it is normal. In life, normal is the roller coaster—stomach-in-your-throat dips and twists that make you feel wildly out of control. Ecclesiastes wants to help us reset our expectations in life. Don’t expect the monorail, where we can be lulled into complacency; expect the roller coaster.
We are inclined to look for self-fulfillment in life—sometimes we call it flourishing to put a good face on it. Ecclesiastes evaluates the quests that people undertake to find fulfillment and meaning in life: wealth, pleasure, education, family, career—but all of them fall short in the end. The book does not offer an alternate quest—a new path to self-fulfillment. Instead it urges us to abandon the quest. A fulfilled life is not a worthy goal to pursue, for as Ecclesiastes indicates, such a quest is doomed to fail even when we dress it up with religiosity.
Here is the lesson we and future generations should learn: When life is going well, don’t hastily adopt that as normal; instead, embrace it as a gift from God. When life is rampaging off the rails, remember that this too comes from God (Eccl 7:14). Like Paul, we can learn to be content whatever the circumstances (Phil 4:11). Understand that both good and bad have their times in our lives (Eccl 3:1-8). Even as you enjoy the good as God’s gift, embrace the challenges—the things that upset the status quo, disrupt our stability, and threaten society as we know it—at times even our very existence. No one seeks out such times, but from them we can learn to trust God through good times and bad. Trust steps up when our knowledge fails (as we wonder “why would God . . .?”) and our experiences confound (as we ask, “why me?”). We should look to honor God whether we are living in good times or bad—that is our goal.