The Beauty of the End

Naked Questions/16 - After all, what matters in life is its end, not business

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 21/02/2016

Logo Qohelet rid mod"Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. (...) The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; (…) The end of the matter; all has been heard."

Ecclesiastes 12,9-13

It's difficult to read great books. It would take meekness of mind, freedom of spirit, purity of heart, and above all poverty: not to have anything and not to defend anything. Some books and the great works of art come to us in our graves, and repeat to us 'come out'. But we do not manage to get out if we are not naked and poor in as we encounter the author who speaks to us and calls us, if we do not get rid of the shroud, leaving it 'wrapped up in a separate place'.

This emptying process is even more difficult when it comes to a biblical text. We approach it carrying the loads of many ideologies about religion developed over millennia, rich in our ideas of ​​how God, our faith and that of others should be. And so these great texts do not sing, they fade away without touching us. They do not injure us, and they do not bless us. Qoheleth has blessed us in these four months we passed in his company week after week, but only if we have allowed him to enter up to the marrow of our soul. If we welcomed him to our house, talked and ate with him. And as we are approaching the end of our listening to his song, we find ourselves inundated by the only good consolation possible under the sun: reality in its nakedness, with its great sorrows and its potential and real joys.

Now, in taking leave of us, he gives us one last anti-comforting fresco on old age: “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth (...) before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain, in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, and the doors on the street are shut— when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low— they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way (...) the grasshopper drags itself along (...) the pitcher is shattered at the fountain". And then he concludes with his most cherished words that he taught us to understand and love: “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 12,1-8). When you're still young, with many teeth (the 'keepers of the house', the 'grinders'), all bright and strong, and your hearing makes you capable of catching the singing of the birds, when desire to scale heights safely is alive in you, when eros (the 'grasshopper') is still strong, and the end of the race is still far ('the amphora that will break'), discover and experience the true joy of the good time you are having: “Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun. ... All that comes is vanity. Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth.” (11,7-9). Wisdom is to look at the whole of life from the perspective of its last days, and there is no dawn in our life that could be as beautiful as the one contemplated from the sunsets of others. Qoheleth does not sing lauds of old age: even here he is the one unmasking ideologies, those that talked too well about the elderly in his time, forgetting their costs and limits. He is anti-ideological and anti-comforting here, too. But he forces us to see old age and to place it at the centre of everyone's life. Especially today, when we have an extreme and vital need for this. The first step to build a new culture of old age and death is to start to see them, to look them in the eye; to get them out from the eclipse in which they entered and have been staying for decades. We shall learn to live and to grow again if we learn to die and to grow old again.

A culture of life loves old age, because it is its climax, not its negation. The culture of death casts and curses old age, and so it saddens even the brightest years. The degree of love for life of a civilization is revealed through its way of seeing and treating old age and death. A culture that's against life despises the old and claims to love children. A culture of life loves them both, because it can still see the beauty of the child when looking at the elderly, and does not make an idol out of the child (in Biblical humanism, the son is the anti-idol). If we despise old age an entire lifetime will steam up, and we do not read into today that has passed like just one day more but also like one day less. Cultures that love life use the tree as the metaphor for life, not the candle. The tree grows with the years, it flowers, it bears fruit and it usually dies at the height of its life returning as a gift to the earth that generated and nurtured it. The candle, however, melts by burning and even when it gives light the passing of time is its enemy. An old man can be seen as a big oak tree or as a wax stub that is dying. The Bible teaches us to look at the oak trees in our forest, as it loves life too much to present it to us like a graveyard populated by a lot of more or less consummated candles.

Old age is the great but denied challenge of our time. We live, and we will live in a world that is increasingly populated by old people but, paradoxically, no other age has ever debased old age and adored and flattered youth (but not the young) as much as ours does. Old age is now viewed only from the market, which is transforming our fear of growing old and dying in its largest business, creating the illusion that there might be a good way of aging that's different from welcoming it and calling it our 'brother'. In the market there is too much of drugged health created by our fear of the natural decay of the body. There are too much of insurances invented and fed by the illusion cultivated by a sense of absolute invulnerability.

Therefore, there is an urgent and vital need for new 'charismas' to teach us again how to grow old and die because we have forgotten it in the span of a single generation. Through the millennia we had developed a whole wisdom of the last stages of life. Perhaps one of the most precious fruits of the great religions had been teaching us how to suffer, grow old and die. There used to be a balance between life and death lived in and with our family, community, religion, faith, time, space and memory, in contact with nature that taught us the rhythm of life and death - which at one point got broken, especially in the West. For us today, old age is surrounded only by ugly adjectives: the word itself has been banished from a world that no longer understands it. But without a good culture of old age and death we cannot have a good relationship with life, with birth and with children. And the less the elderly are loved the less children are loved, and so the latter are transformed into rights or goods or idols.

The Book of Ecclesiastes, after all, was not just an essay. The epilogue of the book tells us that he was also a teacher, a man who 'taught', one who donated 'knowledge to the people', someone who had heard the call to communicate his own findings to others. That's why he is a model for every teacher who lives their job as a task, to help their listeners and students to ask the right, honest, courageous, and painful questions to life, questions that never become adulators. The teacher, if he or she is a friend of Ecclesiastes, works on the questions, hoping to succeed, sometimes, to give some answers that may be provisional and partial, therefore valuable, just as the naked questions and precious "why"-s that are rarely answered.

It is not easy to close this journey in Qoheleth's company, even though he reminds us: “Better is the end of a thing than its beginning” (7,8). We are not always able to stop the journey we have started, because we are not the masters of our time and forces. That's why the first word to be pronounced when a trip is ending is: thank you. Then, if the journey has been long, beautiful, full of encounters, surprises and discoveries, this word of thanks becomes big and plural. The first thanks goes to Qoheleth, that ancient old teacher I can and I want to thank because he is still alive. Thank you, Qoheleth, because your words have had a maturing effect on my life and faith, they served as purification of my many comforting ideologies and illusions. My certainties decreased in number, but those that remain are truer.

Thanks also to Director Marco Tarquinio. Two years ago, I communicated a desire that I strongly felt to him, to start commenting on some biblical books. I felt the need to make a small contribution so that those ancient and great books come back to us to talk about the economy and social life. I wanted to bring back Adam, Abraham, Hagar, Joseph, Moses, Job to our streets, to the halls of politics, to construction sites and to schools, from where they were and are still too far apart. I asked him to let me do this for two years of time, because I knew that the journey would not be short. And although I am neither a biblical scholar nor a theologian, only a professor of the economic sciences, the director surprised me with a generous and courageous 'yes'. In these two years we have commented on four books - Genesis, Exodus, Job and Ecclesiates - sharing in a human and spiritual experience that should be ranked among the greatest in my life. Today, exactly two years after the first episode on Chapter 1 of Genesis, this first biblical journey ends - even if the desire to return to meet other biblical books in a few months is alive and strong in me. The director still wanted to leave 'page three' of the Sunday issue to me, to continue, as early as next week, searching and writing.

Finally, thanks to you, my readers. There were hundreds of letters that you wrote to me - many of them were really beautiful -, and among them there was that of Anna, a 99-year-old midwife. I received it after the first episode of 'The Midwives of Egypt': perhaps the most beautiful letter of my life, which flourished from a beautiful old age. But all the others were gifts, too, bread and water that have fed me during this journey. And I would like to thank God, for the inspiration and the joy of having been able to write. It is all about gratuitousness. The journey continues, we shall stay together.

 Yes, the journey continues. And it continues with Luigino Bruni, who will continue contributing to this page of "Idee" (Ideas) sharing his valuable experience, the depth of analysis and the engaging writing characteristic of him. This is why I say our "thank you" to him. What he said to me actually regards "Avvenire", the newspaper where it is possible to combine ancient and new forms of wisdom, current issues and a vision for the future thanks to those who first envisioned it about half a century ago, to those who support it and those who keep building it. (mt)

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