Ta-Nehisi Coates and King Solomon, Telling it Like It Is

“I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

There are any number of inspirational and uplifting texts in the Bible. In the Five Megillot, the Five scrolls, that make up a portion of the Ketuvim/Writings section of the Bible, we have a number of wonderful examples of this. We read of the Jewish people overcoming assured destruction in the Book of Esther. We travel with two young lovers in Song of Songs. We see the restorative power of companionship in the Book of Ruth. Even in the Book of Lamentations, we conclude with a hopefulness for a better future. There is one book in the set, however, that often leaves us feeling even more depressed than we started, the book of Kohelet/Ecclesiastes.

According to tradition, the book was written by King Solomon in his later years, we are presented with 12(!) chapters that discuss the inherent challenges and perils of the world in which we live. In the community I serve, we read only three chapters a year; it often feels overwhelming and daunting to even get through that modest portion of the text.

But this year, as I prepared to present my introduction to the final three chapters I noticed something that I had not noticed before. Ecclesiastes 12:11-12 reads, “The sayings of the wise are like goads, like nails fixed in prodding sticks. They were given by one shepherd. A further word, against them, my son, be warned! The making of many books is without limit and much study is a wearying of the flesh” (JPS). I never realized that the book of Kohelet was written from father to son. Page after page, lesson after lesson, were not directed towards the author’s progeny. While this child may be full of hope and possibility, Ecclesiastes’ author is reminding his son, that the world is not always so rosy and that it is his imperative as a father to teach him the truth of the world in which they all would live.

This past summer, I also read a modern Ecclesiastes in the book Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Similarly authored as a missive from father to son, this work imparts the lessons that Coates has learned throughout his life. Much like Ecclesiastes it is not presenting the best of the world, but the unfortunate realities of it.

“You must struggle to truly remember this past in all its nuance, error, and humanity. You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice…So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.” (Coates)

It is our responsibility as parents and as people to be hopeful and work towards a better world, but it is equally incumbent upon us to teach them that the space in which we live can also be painful and cold. As we look out for the world, we must recognize that the world is not always looking out for us. There are still people with power and others with less or none and that power is not always used justly.

“All these things I observed; I noted all that went on under the sun, while the men still had authority over men to treat them unjustly” (Ecclesiastes 8:9).

These two important books are here not to teach us how to make the world better, but to remind us that it is also our imperative to understand and come to terms with the world as it is. While we hope and pray for a better future, all we have today is the present, warts and all.

“And still I urge you to struggle. Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom. Struggle for the warmth of The Mecca. Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name. But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all.” (Coates)

Both Between the World and Me and Ecclesiastes wake us up from our dream-like state, our idealized understanding of the world, and remind us that we also have to live in the world that we have inherited. Life has been and will always be a struggle and we must embrace that sense of struggle. Just as Jacob struggled with the angelic being and became Israel, the one who struggles with God and with people and prevails, we too can benefit from that struggle. While many books that we read may inspire us and show us the beauty of the world, we must also be willing to acknowledge the world for what it is, live in that space between the world and ourselves and in that space find one of the most illusive and heartbreaking of states: acceptance.

 

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