My older girls had to write an essay on Ecclesiastes 7:3 for an their online AP English class. The text is this:
Sorrow is better than laughter,
for by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad.
The verse was devoid of context. Their task was to agree or disagree with the phrase.
I was intrigued by the assignment. I’m intrigued whenever the Bible makes an appearance in public school. But I was also intrigued by the text they had to write about. Of all the texts in the Bible? Really. This one?
As I think of my girls, I know them to be relatively carefree kids, good-natured, and happy. They aren’t “wild” or disrespectful. Yet they are 17 year-olds who have their whole lives in front of them and haven’t known a whole lot of pain at this point. That’s a good thing. They have good lives as far as I can tell.
They are also growing up in an age of constant amusement and distraction. I’m not even sure how many channels we get on our TV right now. And if that’s not enough our TV is connected to the internet so they can Hulu and Netflix themselves ad nauseum. In this internet age we all live in laughter is not just a daily occurrence but a constant one. There are the latest memes. There are funny music videos. Over the last couple of days the older girls have been watching short, funny videos of persons lip-synching to clips from movies; it’s funny even if there is very little value to it. But, they’re teenagers…normal teenagers. They “LOL” and “Smiley Face, Smiley Face, Smile With a Wink.”
And so, when faced with a verse that says sorrow is better than laughter, they both disagreed. Who wants sorrow? And, with the amount of laughter that takes place in our household, I’m not surprised. I would have done the same…particularly back when I was their age.
But there’s a problem with taking this verse out of context. See, Ecclesiastes is not telling us that we should be the “Debbie Downers” of our world or that we should be sad-sacks. I believe the author is recognizing that laughter and entertainment can be be shallow. It can numb us to the very real pains that we have in the world. And, I believe it is true that hard times, even death, can lead us into contemplation about eternal matters. They can get us out into the “deep water.”
Ecclesiastes goes on in the next couple of verses:
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning;
but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise
than to hear the song of fools.
The more I read and reread that passage from Ecclesiastes, the more I’m convinced that our age of YouTube and Facebook and Vine and Instagram and Tumbler is an example of what Ecclesiastes calls “the house of mirth.” The internet is full of distractions that may indeed be “funny” but are so very shallow that I think we can safely ask if they are numbing us from some reality we don’t want to confront. Instead, we are constantly amused. (Moreover I think we make the argument that when everything is funny, nothing is. We lose the ability to appreciate subtle humor and to discern the truly funny from the entertaining noise that surrounds us.)
And I’m not just speaking about culture, in general. I’m speaking from experience.
In our own household, it is not uncommon for conversations to begin with one of us of whipping out a smart phone or opening a computer and asking other family members if they’d seen this or that video. And if it’s not a video then it might be a funny picture or an interesting song. It’s all sound-bites and snippets designed to elicit a chuckle or at least a smile. And it often does the job. There’s a lot of amusing stuff out there on the World Wide Web. But it rarely leads to laughing out loud and is often barely worth a smirk. So much of it just wastes our time.
I love to laugh as much as the next person. I think my family will tell you that I’m a relatively funny guy. But I’m afraid that our “LOL” culture can get in the way of the weightier discussions and the deeper personal relationships that God calls us to.
Perhaps we need to stop the laughing every once in a while. It’s OK not to be constantly entertained. Perhaps we’re amusing ourselves to death.
As I write this, I feel like I must sound like the stereotypical old man, yelling at the kids to “get off my lawn.” And maybe I am.
I’m just fearful that the latest Viral videos and Kim Kardashian tweets are keeping us in the shallow end of a life that is meant to be lived deeply.
And by us, I really mean “me.”
Oh, and here’s a funny video of dogs for you 🙂