When We Feel Like It’s All Futile

Reflecting on the book of Ecclesiastes, author Jennifer Hackbarth encourages us to find joy in the everyday moments of our lives and in God.

In a recent editorial in the Washington Post1, journalist Amanda Ripley admits to a secret she considers shameful in her profession, one she’s held onto for a long time. She admits she’s been avoiding the news for years. She used to love consuming the news and would read multiple newspapers a day along with listening to NPR and watching CNN. Yet something changed a few years ago. After reading the morning news, she would feel drained. Listening to NPR left her unmotivated. She slowly attempted to cut news out of her daily life, yet it was everywhere—on her smartphone, in her email, in text messages. The news left her bereft and feeling like everything she did was pointless. She was, she wrote, “marinating in despair.”

I too have dramatically cut down on my personal news intake over the past few years. I started noticing how I felt after spending time on Twitter (overwhelmed and frightened) and Facebook (angry and appalled), my cynicism increasing with each click. I realized reading the headlines caused me to lose hope in humanity’s ability to do anything unselfishly or for the greater good. I lost faith in my ability to make a difference with my actions, when entire systems seem broken beyond repair. While driving my teenage son to school on a recent morning, I had the local news on in the car. After a string of dark, violent updates, I turned it off in disgust and told my son I couldn’t handle it anymore. My son responded, “You had the news on? I wasn’t listening.” I wonder if his body was protecting him without his knowledge. 

I want to be aware of what is happening in the world. Limiting my intake of news feels like ignoring the suffering of others, yet I also want to be able to feel hope about what is possible. I want to know my actions might make a difference. I want to be informed but not constantly terrified.

The book of Ecclesiastes, written by a wise teacher looking back on his life, isn’t afraid to admit that life is a series of problems and injustices, and much of it is left to chance. “I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun, and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind,” he writes in Ecclesiastes 1:14-15. “What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted.” What’s the use in trying, when nothing can be done? Are all our efforts useless, like chasing the wind?

I find comfort in the wisdom of Ecclesiastes. It’s good to know humans have long struggled with cynicism and feeling like all is futile; I’m not alone in my inability to cope or decide how to move forward when all seems hopeless. Indeed, as Ecclesiastes 1:9 says, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.” While this statement may feel bleak to some, I find it liberating. People have wrestled with life’s problems, but they have also found ways to keep going. The long perspective is a helpful tool. 

I like that Ecclesiastes depicts life in all its messy and difficult reality. There’s a reason we laugh with recognition when we see someone wearing a t-shirt that says, “Life is hard, and then you die.” Ecclesiastes grapples with the knowledge that all people meet the same fate at the end of life, whether they did good or evil in their lives. “All is vanity,” the writer of Ecclesiastes famously states in verse 1; he uses the word “vanity” in the book a total of 37 times. In other words, he wonders if all is meaningless and empty, which is often how I feel after reading or hearing the latest news reports.   

Ecclesiastes doesn’t shy away from the sufferings of life and admits it’s often impossible to understand what God is doing in the world. Yet we can’t stay in a place of overwhelm and helplessness because life is meant to be lived. Even when all seems like vanity, the author of Ecclesiastes encourages us to find joy in the everyday moments of our lives, our family and friends, and in God. Ecclesiastes 2:24 declares that “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil.” When we are overcome with the troubles of the world, we start small. We can be frustrated at our inability to understand God’s ways while also practicing gratitude for God’s blessings. When we notice the goodness around us, we find hope, which I believe leads us to action. Maybe we find a way forward through joy instead of dread.

1Ripley, Amanda. “I stopped reading the news. Is the problem me — or the product?” The Washington Post, July 8, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/07/08/how-to-fix-news-media/.