RtO: Overcoming Vanity

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Each week, author and poet Y.S. Fing looks at the state of baseball, the movements of the game, the ebb and flow and soul of America’s pastime in Roaming the Outfield. This week: “Overcoming Vanity”

I mentioned Ecclesiastes in a previous post and so I thought I would go back and take another look. Wow! I wonder if I’d ever even read it before, but I must have in 20 years of Catholic church masses, or in that Bible as Literature class freshman year. But being 28 years removed from any Biblical study, reading Ecclesiastes again was a surprise.

So that’s where ‘nothing new under the sun’ comes from! And ‘vanity of vanities.’ It is very much an existential document, as are almost all of the writings we’ve considered in these essays. “What has a man from all the toil and strain with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of pain, and his work is a vexation; even in the night his mind does not rest.”

Goodness if that doesn’t describe this year’s Washington Nationals. They have been an existential conundrum from too early in the season, as if “there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” Left-handers not hitting left-handed pitching. Among the highest number of errors in MLB. Little bunting or hitting a sacrifice fly, little hit and run. Blown saves. Among least runs scored. “Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down to the earth? So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should enjoy his work, for that is his lot; who can bring him to see what will be after him?”Bible Ecclesiastes

We don’t know the future. But we know that we can influence the future by our exertions. And we know that we do better when we take pleasure in what we do. So it is imperative that we let go of “vanity and striving after wind,” and simply enjoy what we are doing. Having the ability to enjoy the process is vastly more important than achieving the professional goal. Letting go of the goal is indicative of strong mental health.

“Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart…Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life have been given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life…Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Death, to which you are going.”

That’s existential philosophy in four lines. And a secular, atheistic person who seeks to create a moral life for themselves can go forward with acceptance of those four lines. It hurts. It’s hard. Sometimes the team simply cannot fulfill its potential. And there is an endgame that seeks to maintain dignity to the complete end of the lost season.

Nationals Taylor JordanThat’s what the Preacher of Ecclesiastes wants us to be prepared for. Thirty-one teams’ fans finish the season disappointed by no playoff appearance or a playoff loss. The fact of life is suffering, is change, is impermanence. What pleasure we feel is always fleeting. Enjoy it while it lasts. It won’t last.

Is that comfort? Is that the reconciliation we need for our wounds, of our faith shaken by reality? It’s the best we have. We are sensate, emotional, and social creatures and there are ways to forgive and to forget. Time has a strong effect too. It should be no great surprise when our expectations are met with disappointment. The best thing for us to do in the future is moderate any desire to inflate expectations and thereby reduce the pain of disappointment.

And I speak as a baseball fan who has known disappointment. I’ve been a Red Sox and Cubs fan for 40 years. I was 39 when the Red Sox finally won. But I remember 2003 more vividly than 2004. All that pain. It hasn’t been erased by 2004 and 2007, but lessened. I feel all that suffering helped me throughout this year with the Nationals.

If we are really out of the playoffs, and these last weeks are simply forestalling a long off-season of second-guessing and debatable maneuverings, then Ecclesiastes has us there too. “Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth; walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes…Remove vexation from your mind, and put pain away from your body; for youth and the dawn of life are vanity.”

We just have to carry on. We have to allow ourselves to come full circle, to realize that we, like Sisyphus, are pushing a rock up a hill every day, and that that rock must roll back down. That is where our work springs from, where meaning springs from. The whole thing was destined for a kind of failure all along. Life is destined for death. But we still try to win the World Series. We don’t stop trying, even when mathematics and reason say it’s over.

It’s never over. It starts again, the next day, the next season. Our best path is to always be preparing a positive response to existential irony. That’s what makes consistent winning such a pleasure.


Y.S Fing loves baseball the way that his parents wish he loved Catholicism.