I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees… Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had experienced in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after the wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.
In Chicago, ancient history is Al Capone. Most of the city was destroyed in the fire of 1871. The skyscrapers for which Chicago is famous were built within the last hundred years. By contrast, The Cathedral of Notre Dame will celebrate its 850th anniversary next year. Construction on the Louvre Palace began in the late 12th century. The Palace of Versailles began as a hunting lodge in 1624.
Our trip began with a consideration that I am not as important as I often think I am. It has continued with reminders that in the timeline of the history of the world - or even the history of man - we are but a blip. My dad said, “20 years ago when we went to the Holy Lands I received the same message. We saw what they thought was the Wall of Jericho and they spoke in terms of 6000 to 8000 B.C. They spoke about wars and other events that took place well before the time of Christ and I left with the same sense that 1776 or 1620 or even 1492 wasn’t that long ago.”
You see these palaces - absurdly large, decadent buildings - and you know that there were no cranes or bulldozers or semi trucks. You wonder about the man that placed that stone in the wall over there. Did he find pleasure in his work? Was he just trying to support a family? Did he get benefits?
You wonder about the artist so proud to be commissioned to create beautiful works in the house of a king, and how quickly his work is passed over by tourists on a self-guided tour hundreds of years later.
You wonder how someone could possibly build these residences for themselves and not stop and say “Okay… maybe that’s enough.” You look at these indulgences and feel like man’s thirst for material pleasures can never be quenched, and that the 1% of today has got some serious work to do if they want to match the gall of their predecessors. Maybe that’s why we’re setting up tents instead of chopping off heads.
You wonder what it was all for. I’m happy when I construct a three foot high structure out of rocks. I hope that it stays up there for a week or two, and when the next volunteer comes along and asks “What’s that?”, Josep will tell them about this guy named Greg and how he spent a couple days pulling up rocks.
Kings spent the formative years of their lives building these structures that will probably never be matched in decadence or beauty or magnificence. And what’d they get for it? A statue across the street of them on a horse. They’re a stop on a walking tour. They’re a trivia question. Did the fact that they are remembered a couple hundred years after their death benefit them in any way during their life? What did they gain for all their toil?
What hope do I have to create anything that even comes close?
The author of Ecclesiastes also says:
I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil - that is God’s gift to man.
Maybe that’s enough.