The Temptation of Meaninglessness

A young man was running frantically to catch a bus. When he finally caught up to it, an elderly man took notice and asked him, “Why are you running so hard?”

The young man replied, “Because I need to get to class.”

“And why do you need to get to class?”

“So I can graduate.”

“Why?”

“So I can get a job.”

“Then what?”

“So I can make money and get married.”

“And then?”

“Have children.”

“And then?”

“Well, then, I guess I’ll die.”

The old man paused for a moment and said, “So, essentially, you’re running to die.”


The Spin Cycle

It’s the middle of the night, and I can’t sleep. I’m lying awake in my bed and I’m staring — at the ceiling, at the blinds on my left, at my wife to my right. I try to doze off, but the silence is too loud. I hear the horn of a faraway train; it's echo fills the night sky, and I feel terribly alone. Then the thoughts start to roll in, one by one, like clicking dominoes, or all at once, like a storm.

This has happened many times before. It's my own little existential exercise. You see, I'm trying to figure it all out. You know, life, the meaning of it all, the ultimate purpose of everything.

  • The sun comes up; the sun goes down.
  • You are hungry, so you try that new restaurant that everyone’s been raving about. Then minutes later you’re hungry again.
  • You are thirsty, so you get a drink only to be thirsty again later.
  • You plan and wait for that vacation. You have an amazing time only to feel sad and depressed when it’s all over.
  • You desire something, whether it is a person, a position, or a possession, but when you finally attain it, you get bored or tired of it. Then you desire something else again.
  • A hot, new trend seizes the world’s attention, but is forgotten just as quickly as it’s replaced by something newer, something hotter.

And so it goes, on and on — the same story, different characters, different props. After a while, I find myself asking, “What is the point of all this?” I don’t mean, what is the point of the sun or eating or drinking. What I’m asking is, “What is the ultimate point of everything in life if I’m simply going to see it again, desire it again, need it again? What is the point if all roads end in death anyway?” If you stop and ponder this for a moment, it’s enough to drive someone crazy, or at least, in my case, to keep me up at night.


Familiar Territory

One of my favorite books of the Bible is Ecclesiastes. It’s a fascinating book, especially the first three chapters, because it reads unlike anything in the rest of Scripture. It begins with an interesting premise: Let’s examine life “under the sun.” That is, let’s analyze what earthly life looks like without God in the picture. The writer’s findings are both comforting to me (I’m not the first person to think these thoughts) and sobering (my misery has company).  

The author is (most likely) King Solomon, and he had everything: riches beyond compare, women at his beck and call, and royal power at his disposal. In spite of all this, he also had thought those thoughts, those middle-of-the-night thoughts. He ponders life, reflecting upon its ultimate meaning, and he is struck by the vicious cyclical nature of everything on earth and by the meaninglessness of all human experience in the face of death and oblivion.
 
As he looks back on his life, Solomon declares, “All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be again; there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:8-9). And in light of death, he goes on to conclude, “No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who followed them” (1:11).


An Escape Route

There is a reason why, when we really ponder life, that we come to the conclusion of meaninglessness and ultimate futility. It’s because life, on its own merits, IS futile. Life, with all its ups and downs, virtues and vices, is horribly and undeniably empty. There is no real point, no rhyme or reason, behind any of it. If we simply judge life on its own merits, it cannot redeem itself. Life cannot lift life out of the pit of pointlessness, for it is terribly circular, and painfully repetitive.

In the first three chapters, the author of Ecclesiastes indirectly points us towards God by showing us first the terrifying alternative if God does not exist. We are left with meaningless cycles upon cycles that inevitably end with our demise. Without God, meaning itself is bankrupt. 


A Tunnel with a Light

The point of this life, however, is not to see riches, pleasure, and power as ends in themselves, but as clues to something bigger, something beyond. C.S. Lewis states: “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.” We were made for more than mere eating, drinking, or trending. Our Creator has wired us to be dissatisfied with worldly things because the only One who can truly satisfy us is Him.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus Christ himself explains the problem when he speaks to a Samaritan woman at a nearby well. She was looking for water, but Jesus knew she had spent her life looking for something much deeper. As He gently conversed with her, Jesus pointed to life's characteristic futility and alludes to the divine alternative: “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14).

Excited and amazed, the woman asks, "Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water" (John 4:15). She clearly didn't get it. She thought He was offering her some magic H20.

So Jesus, the master surgeon, cuts to the heart of the matter and exposes her empty pursuit of fulfillment. The woman had been intimate with multiple men and now lived with someone who was not her husband. She was now standing transparent before her Creator.

One of the key requirements to finding our ultimate fulfillment in Christ is admitting to God that all our human attempts at happiness, security, and satisfaction have been futile. We must come to Him honestly, agreeing with both the message of Ecclesiastes and the promise of Christ. We must confess that, in our quest for self-fulfillment, we have wronged Him, and we must turn to Christ for forgiveness to begin anew.


It’s the middle of the night again, and I hear the familiar silence and the echoing horn of the train. My thoughts begin to tumble down their well-worn corridor. But as I close my eyes this time, I remember what the Lord has said to me.

He reminds me that He not only understands, but He has provided the ultimate answer to my existential crisis. As the thoughts begin to pull me deeper and deeper into darkness, I can feel Him pulling me back from the abyss.


David Kim is a high school English teacher from Diamond Bar, CA.