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Does history teach us anything that can help us today?

Film maker Ken Burns, who has spent a lot of time thinking about history, reminds us that what we’re experiencing today isn’t really all that new. And the challenge of living through it isn’t all that new. He writes:

“I go back to Ecclesiastes in the Bible, and it says, ‘What has been, will be again. What has been done, will be done again.’ That suggests to me that human nature doesn’t change—good and bad…With human beings, if you believe Ecclesiastes, there’s nothing new under the sun.”  

Ecclesiastes, originally part of the Hebrew Bible, is an interesting little book—less than ten pages. Scholars believe it was written in the Axial Age (700-400 B.C.E), a time of tremendous social upheaval.

During this time, the nation of Israel was being invaded by foreign powers. Jerusalem and their great temple was destroyed and the people were carried off into slavery far from their home—a quarantine if there ever was one!

So it’s not surprising that the book takes what sounds like a dark view of the world. It says that there’s something broken in the world that can’t be fixed; that in the place of justice you’ll find injustice; that most people are “chasing after the wind” and life seems meaningless and, oh, by the way, everyone dies.

Is the author pessimistic? Or is he just telling it like it is?

Here’s what’s interesting. Over against these realities, the writer puts up joy—our ability as human beings to find and create joy in the simplest everyday things—even in dark times.

For example, he writes:

“Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him—for this is his lot. Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work—this is a gift of God…God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart.”

He repeats this type of refrain nine times in this short book! From 2500 years ago, he’s reminding us to slow down and take a breath; to appreciate more and savor our food and drink more; to enjoy the work and the phone conversations more and be more present.

He’s helping us think about how important joy is to our lives—especially in a time like this.