Existential Dread on Valentine’s Day
I am not one of the people who dread Valentine’s Day coming around. This is the third Valentine’s Day in a row that I have shared with my girlfriend, and while we’re historically quite terrible at celebrating it, at least it’s not a reminder that we’re alone like all you singles out there.
However, this Valentine’s Day was filled with dread. I was weighed down by the futility of existence. A lecture yesterday in my Philosophy of Religion class quoted Ecclesiastes:
“All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has been already in the ages before us.
I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.”
Ecclesiastes 1:8–10, 16–18 ESV
It was a really fun, uplifting lecture that further inspired my expensive college education. Even the Bible, the book that’s supposed to bring good news, recognizes the futility in the world. Fabulous.
And then I, perhaps unwisely, listened to Johnny Cash’s American IV: The Man Comes Around album this morning. The first three songs on that album are full of despair, especially Cash’s interpretation of Nine Inch Nail’s Hurt, famous for the depth of its dread and the vulnerable recognition that everything we build up, in quite Ecclesiastical fashion, is an “empire of dirt.”
Couple all this with the readings I’ve had for all my classes:
- Digging into the darkness of American history in America the Beautiful
- Reading numerous sociological studies on American society and its lack of morals, identity, social capital, and trust in community
- Researching Søren Kierkegaard’s A Sickness Unto Death and his concepts of anxiety and despair for a 25-page paper
You quickly get the picture. I have been inundated with, quite frankly, depressing readings. I have been left with no hope for society. I have been let down by close friends on a regular basis. I have had my own trust in others torn down. I have had to readjust my picture of what love looks like because person after person have constantly been trying to “love” me while hurting me and, quite frankly, pissing me off. And even those who manage to keep a commitment they’ve made to me instantly ignore any history or (more worryingly) social responsibility once they’ve started drinking — something that a lot of people around me have started doing on a far more regular basis it seems.
And what sucks about all this is that I am far from perfect too. I am also letting people down, forgetting commitments I made etc. But while this is of course something we expect from every human, they seem to be happening with such consistency that I’m losing all hope. I’d rather depend on myself than on others because then at least I can blame myself if something doesn’t get done. I’d rather know that I was in control the whole time, so that I don’t have to get pissed off at anyone else. So I don’t have to believe in anyone else. So I don’t have to put my trust in anyone else only to have it ripped from me yet again.
This all seemed to come to a climax today. Valentine’s Day. My girlfriend knew something was up, and so did I, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Fortunately, she is the one person that I consistently interact with that is supportive and helpful and we continue to have a far more healthy relationship with each other that other people, and I thank God for that, especially right now.
But there’s something bigger than her. Our love on this Valentine’s Day is to be celebrated, but this love is only a symbol, a representation of something else. A finite symbol of something infinite. The one hope.
While everything crumbles around me, and while I am reminded of the meaninglessness of my existence, and the inevitable death that is the only thing that can put a stop to it, I am reminded of something else. Something alluded to in many other passages of the Bible. Something alluded to in Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah when, before a barrage of “Hallelujah”s, Cohen sings:
Even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of song with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.
Even after the pain and misery, we can still sing Hallelujah because Christ lives outside of this meaninglessness and pain. Everything is darkness, and he is light. Everything is vapor, and he is the solid rock. When you realize the truly futile and temporal nature of everything, including yourself, your wisdom, your knowledge, your possessions, your friends, everything, then this solid rock is all that’s left.
And that’s what’s cool about it being both Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday. This day that’s about celebrating this romantic love we have (or don’t have) is lovely and all, but while I’m celebrating that, I’m having ashes rubbed on my forehead in the shape of the cross as a reminder of my impending death.
Isn’t that great? I know it sounds terrible, but it’s fantastic. Death is literally the worst thing, and the only thing we cannot prevent. But we can overcome it, because Christ did first, for our sake. For a moment in history, God did not believe in himself. On the cross, Christ cried out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” and there was no answer. God forsake himself for our sake.
Pretty crazy, right?
So whether you have a lovely Valentine’s date to enjoy tonight, or if you’re enjoying your singleness with friends to spite all those lucky enough to be “in love,” just remember:
- Everything is vapor. Everything you put your hope in will be destroyed. You yourself will someday die.
- Christ is outside all of this and yet is intimately involved in it all, and has wiped you clean of your sins through the most extreme of all pain.
So sit back, relax, and float down the stream towards the inevitable, and pass on the message to all those struggling upstream.