When someone we love is taken from us prematurely, when the city is outraged by a senseless killing, when terrorists break into a school and slaughter innocents in the name of heaven, when our minds are reeling with the ugly legacies of megadeath, when the world seems anything but safe and life is turning out to be a nasty business, we get the feeling that we are looking at something terribly wrong.
I felt that way after Nancy died. In 1993 we were fifteen years into building our family. We had these three incredible girls who were just in love with life and about as eager to embrace the best that the world has to offer as three little girls could be.
Then the phone call came. “Mrs. Hendricks, this is Dr. Knox’s office. Dr. Knox needs to see you right away. Can you come in this afternoon?” Instantly Nancy knew by the tone of the nurse and by the urgency to schedule the appointment that she was facing her worst nightmare: breast cancer.
I held her as she collapsed into sobs, raw fear emanating from her throat. And the words, over and over again, “I’m going to die! I’m going to die! Oh, honey, I’m going to die!” It was pointless to point out that we had not even heard the diagnosis. Nancy knew in her gut before she even met with Dr. Knox that this “thing” was ultimately going to be the death of her. Turns out she was right.
After she died, I did have that feeling of, “What happened? Things were going along so well. Nancy was just living her life. So was I. We were trying to build a family, just minding our own business. Now what do I do?”
“Is that It?”
There’s a word for what I was experiencing. It’s the same word for what many have experienced the morning they woke up to a new and very unpleasant reality that they’d never expected and certainly never asked for. Whatever that morning and whenever it dawned, they woke up and thought, What’s happened? I didn’t expect this. I don’t want this. I don’t want to have to deal with this. This isn’t what I want for my life. And eventually, hemmed in by the claustrophobic fact that “this” is indeed what they are stuck with, the quandary arose: Now what am I going to do?
If you’ve ever been at that point, you were experiencing the Hebrew word hebel. Hebel is the experience of having one’s hopes and expectations dashed to pieces. The essence of the word has to do with something fleeting, transitory, empty. It’s like a vapor or a puff of smoke. Something is right there where you can see it—and then it’s not there. It has vanished away.
There’s also a sense or disappointment in hebel, and a sense of frustration. Just when you most need that thing that you most care about—it’s gone! It’s no longer there. And when that happens, you suddenly feel like you’re standing in midair, gaping in bewilderment and with nothing to support you. Worse than feeling shocked, you feel betrayed. As if life has let you down.
That’s the experience of hebel. Futility.
When I was in the middle of Nancy’s ordeal, I turned frequently to a book in the Old Testament that is entirely devoted to the experience of futility. That may strike you as an odd thing to do, since I guess most people in my situation would be looking for something to cheer them up. But I wasn’t looking to get cheered up. Cheer could change my mood, but it couldn’t change my outlook. For that I needed insight. I found it in the enigmatic book of Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes is all about life “under the sun,” as the writer puts it. That is, life down here on planet Earth. Life on this side of heaven. The writer examines area after area of human experience—from nature, to food and drink, to commerce, to government, to law, to power, to money, to wisdom, to folly, to religious devotion, to love, to birth, to youth, to old age, to succession and inheritance, to death. He examines each area and says, “Here is what I have seen,” and then he pronounces a conclusion.
His overall conclusion is this: “All is hebel.” All is futility. All is fleeting, transitory, empty, vanishing. Everything “under the sun,” everything down here on earth, everything we humans experience on this side of heaven is tainted in some way by futility. Everything.
My intent here is not to make you feel depressed by discussing life’s emptiness. But I’m a strong believer in facing reality as it actually is. And when Nancy and I and our girls were plunging into the abyss, I wanted to know reality. I wanted to know whether what I was facing had any connection to something meaningful. Or were my family and I just the butt of a cosmic joke? In sifting through all the things I had been told about the nature of the world—from parents, from friends, from books, from teachers, from ministers, from poets, from filmmakers, from comedians, from musicians, from the lifetime of voices collected in my head—I kept finding my way back to Ecclesiastes.
In a world of futility, the writer of Ecclesiastes tells us, there are some valuable gifts that God gives us in the midst of this precarious life. They are quite simple gifts, really: food, family, work, laughter. Ecclesiastes tells us over and over that if we are given those sorts of things, we should take joy in them. They are gifts from God’s hands in a world marked by hebel. It is also a gift if we can enjoy them.
I have been given remarkable gifts in the midst of my own life “under the sun.” Nancy herself was a gift. Nancy was a planner. Once she got an idea in her mind for something that needed to happen, she could put together all the steps needed to get from here to there. And then she’d work those steps with relentless determination.
When she and I moved to Dallas from Boston in 1982, she decided that she had to have a vegetable garden. I tried to explain the challenges of gardening in Texas. But she dismissed all that. I’m sure she was thinking, What does he know?
Unfortunately for squash, Texas is not New England.
We were standing by the garden one evening, talking and occasionally bending over to pull out a grass shoot that had strayed into the plot. All of a sudden, Nancy let out a cry. “Hey!” She was batting at one of the plants. “Get off there!” She flicked a bug off the leaf and shook her head in disgust.
“Honey, they’re eating my plants!” She had tears in her eyes. “What are they?” she asked, looking at me like I was to blame. I shrugged.
At that point in time, I had never heard the word hebel. Didn’t matter. Nancy and I were getting an introductory course in the meaning of the concept.
Well, every evening after dinner, Nancy was out at the garden, picking off squash bugs one by one. And sure enough, a few small squash began to grow. Never were any squash watched over more or better than that handful of squash. It was as if Nancy was on a mission from God to ensure that those squash made it to our table.
And one night they did. As I sat down to dinner, Nancy turned from the stove with a look of utter vindication. She set a bowl on the table. It was steaming with squash. A little butter. A little seasoning. I think she had put a little Parmesan cheese on it too. I don’t know what all she had done to prepare it. All I know is that I had the good sense to say, “Wow, this looks great!” She was smiling with pride.
And you know what? That squash was great. It may have been the best I’ve ever tasted. But who cares whether it was? What mattered was that Nancy had eked out a few decent squash from all other labors. That was terribly satisfying to her. And the squash tasted great. And we enjoyed talking and laughing about what it had taken to grow those squash. And I was proud of her. And I was married to her, committed to her. And we were happy. And we had created a moment in our life together. A memory.
And so when Ecclesiastes says, “Here is what I have seen to be good and fitting: to eat, to drink and enjoy oneself in all one’s labor in which he toils under the sun during the few years of his life which God has given him; for this is his reward,” I have found that to be utterly true.
And when Ecclesiastes tells me to “enjoy life with the woman whom you love all the days of your fleeting life which [God] has given to you under the sun; for this is your reward in life and in your toil in which you have labored under the sun,” I have found that to be utterly true. I have found that life “under the sun” is indeed marked by hebel. Futility. Not absurdity. Life is not pointless. It has meaning. But life is marred by an inevitable futility— whether it’s squash bugs in the garden, or cancer in a breast.
Yet there’s grace, even in a fallen world. Even in a fallen world, God grants us simple gifts, simple rewards. Like a bowl of fresh squash. Like the smile of a spouse. Like the laughter of a good joke. Like a garden—bugs and all.
Adapted from The Light That Never Dies: A Story of Hope in the Shadow of Grief Copyright © 2005 by William Hendricks.. Published by Northfield Publishing, Chicago, Ill. Used with permission.