All Is Vanity: The Folly of Human Ambition

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,

vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

Ecclesiastes 1

I am the most important person to myself. That much is obvious. I see the world through my “skull-sized kingdom.” I’m the ruler. My desire and needs come first. When I’m hungry or tired, I’m the first to know. When I am dissatisfied or anxious, my body feels off, and I want it to stop. Once my basic needs are met– food, shelter, water, clothes, companionship– I turn to other things to bring me some measure of pleasure or happiness. 

What does pleasure or happiness look like for you? For most of us, it is about money, material possessions, hedonistic pleasures, beauty, power, or accomplishments. This is the mass of human activity, the movements of everyday society. It is how we live, desire above all else, wanting and wanting more and more. 

I’m not here to judge this, because I’d be judging myself and every living person. It is what we are, constantly in flux, constantly desiring or wanting something else. We are insatiable, our unconscious demons always feeding on our need to fit in the social hierarchies of life. Inevitably this leads to self-consciousness and comparisons to others about one’s status in life. It is here in these trenches where the three poisons, greed, hatred, and delusion, grab hold. 

And so we cling a little more. We keep desiring more and more power, and pleasure and material possessions, and everything we can grab our hands-on. Some of this is because it is pleasurable, of course. Who doesn’t like a great meal or a promotion or making more money? But some of it is also about keeping up with the Joneses. No one wants to be left behind. No one wants to be less than. It is one reason why social media has such power over us. It is a place to constantly judge and compare ourselves

I’ve found this way of living doesn’t lead to contentment. In fact, it does the opposite. It is a world of constant judgment, comparison and ego. Its insidiousness is subtle. You might think you’re ok, but if people examine their day-to-day thoughts and feelings, there is a lot more underneath the surface than one might think. Every interaction on social media can lead to more desire or more anger. From everyday stresses or feeling not enough, the mind is often polluted with unhappiness. Life is suffering, as a wise man once said. And suffering is caused first and foremost by desire. 

Photo by Thiago Matos on Pexels.com

Recently it struck me how vain I am. It is not something I’d like to admit, probably because it shatters some self-image I have of myself, which is of course my vanity rearing its head ha! But my instinct is to take myself seriously, to feel accomplished and proud of who and what I am, about my struggles and what I’ve overcome to get where I am in my field. But also vanity includes my outward appearance. I am a fitness rat these days, and I wish I could tell you it was completely motivated by a desire to keep my body healthy, but the truth is my appearance matters a lot to me. Otherwise, I’d never feel the need to look at myself with my shirt off to see what kind of progress I’m making.  It feels good to feel attractive and noticed by others. 

As I’ve reflected on this vanity more and more, I started to wonder what isn’t vanity? One day recently as I was watching television with my wife, a character quoted the bible and said “all is vanity.” And like a thunderbolt to the head, I was stunned. Yes, all is vanity. The quote has stuck with me for the last few days. I started to reassess my entire life, my entire narrative of myself, and it has had a strange effect. I can’t help but consider the strange folly of human life, in particular my own. What I am trying to be? Who am I trying to be? And why? I’m not sure I can answer those questions anymore. Suddenly human ambition seems silly to me. Suddenly I understood Camus’s absurdism from a new light. I’m just a silly boy playing at being important when nothing matters. This thought would depress most people, I think. Hell, it might have depressed me just a few months ago. But now it fills me with laughter

I’ve been trying to take this new perspective into my life in the last few days but it is hard. My ego wants so badly to be important. My ego wants so badly to feel safe and not scared. And as I’ve said before, I’m always scared. (Who isn’t?) My ego just wants and wants and wants, always chasing pleasure and avoiding pain. It is the way of things. But I can feel the bonds loosening with just a little more awareness. But there is so much awakening to still do. I look forward to this. 

  Yesterday I finished the novel, Moby Dick, which ended up being a wonderful, strange book, and its themes had me thinking more and more about human ambition and vanity. In case you’re unfamiliar, Moby Dick is about an obsessive and mad ship captain named Ahab. Vengeance consumes Ahab, because on his last voyage out to sea, a Sperm Whale, named Moby Dick took his leg. Now Ahab does everything in his power to confront Moby Dick and kill it. Reason means nothing to him. His life or the lives of his crew matter little. Meaning for Ahab, it seems, comes from the doing, no matter the consequences. At the end of the book, Ahab leads himself and most of his men to death, as Moby Dick shipwrecks the Pequod, their ship. 

The metaphor, I think, works for our lives. We struggle and fight in silly ways in our vanity to have our lives mean something. But no matter how much we try, they don’t mean that much. And then we inevitably die. The question is what do we do in between? How do we live? 

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