I have on occasion been asked to build marshmallow and toothpick towers as a team exercise to spice up a work meeting. That, I thought was functionally useless. A wiser manager did something different: he passed around a pencil and paper, and asked us to draw our emoji for the day. That got everybody’s attention. What surprised me was how many people drew sad faces, or something in between. They were being honest… the answer you don’t wait around for when you ask people cheerily “and how are you today?” Noting that we have a whole month in Canada dedicated to mental heath, we are not always OK.
The topic came to mind because we had a reading from the Book of Ecclesiastes yesterday in church, and I was reminded how much of this book has entered common discourse. Ecclesiastes of course, is one of the wisdom books of the Bible, (The Book of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon) which reflect on the sometimes hard contemplations of life. It’s not all happy faces.
For the uninitiated, the book of Ecclesiastes was written by Solomon, son of King David who asked God for the gift of wisdom. He’s famous for deciding the battle between two mothers over a newborn. Solomon asked for a sword to carve the baby in two. He didn’t mean it of course, but it certainly was an effective ruse to draw out the real mother - the one who wanted the baby to be spared.
We all know the book of Ecclesiastes. There’s the pop song Turn, Turn Turn, made famous by the Byrds which sources from Ecclesiastes 3: that there is a time for every purpose under Heaven. There is the quote politicians and valedictorians trot out when they want to appear wise: “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong; neither is the bread to the wise, nor the wealth to the intelligent, nor the favour to the skillful. For time and chance happen to all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11). There is everyday advice: “Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again” (Ecclesiastes 11:1). But Solomon keeps coming back to the same theme; sadness. “Sorrow is better than laughter, a sad countenance is good for the heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:3).
Some have said that the book of Ecclesiastes is Solomon’s mid-life crisis writ large. Solomon was the man who had everything: he was King, he received over 25 tons of gold a year in tribute, he had a golden throne, robes, weapons, spices, 4,000 chariots and 12,000 horses. He had 700 wives and 300 concubines, and ruled in peace until his death from natural causes at age 80 in 931 BC. Solomon had it all, and enough time on his hands to plunge him into existential melancholy.
All of which makes me ponder the role of occasional sadness. Sadness can be useful because it ferrets out what is wrong, and gives us reason and motivation to set things right again. Sadness is the goad which pulls you out of a slough and impels you to do useful things. If we were happy all the time, it would mean something is seriously wrong with us.
I had one visit to a psychiatrist in my life. The man offered me a small bat and a pillow, and told me to beat the pillow and call out the names of people I was mad at. I have also been offered mood-altering medication to paper over my feelings during a time of stress and disenchantment. I didn’t pursue either of these options, because I decided that sadness meant there was some useful work to be done, if I allowed myself time to simply go through the emotion and look for the right answers.
I took Jordan Peterson’s advice yesterday - if you want to fix your world, go clean your room. Specifically, I cleaned the basement and also set my shop in order. That’s just a start, but it’s something practical I can do. Three months ago, surgeons cut me up and sewed me back together again like a rag doll. They fixed my heart, but they didn’t address my soul. There’s more to the puzzle and sometimes the sad face is the right answer. More specifically, it’s the right question. Why did I have a heart attack in the first place? That’s a little more complex, a contemplation that must be broached because we are more than just pieces of equipment set in motion. God himself has set eternity in the human heart. Yes, that’s also a quote from Ecclesiastes (3:11), the book of wisdom from the sad king, that we just can’t seem to get enough of.