Like an adult on a spinning teacup

Tales from the Unending Story

March 10, 2021 | Opinion | Volume 25 Issue 6
Joshua Penfold | Columnist
(Photo by Skylar Sahakian/Unsplash)

I love watching my kids twirl endlessly around at the park on those self-propelling spinners. It reminds me of my childhood spinning on tire swings until we were nearly sick, and then quickly jumping off and attempting to walk, looking like underaged drunken sailors.

When I was a kid, I couldn’t understand why my dad refused to go on spinning rides with us at theme parks. You know what I’m talking about—the spinning teacups, ladybugs or what have you, where the ride spins everyone around and for extra dizzying insanity, you can manually spin your pod even more.

Now, as an adult, I can’t do it either. Even thinking about it while writing this turns my stomach. There’s something about going in circles that can be either thrilling or sickening, or both.

I feel like this might be kind of what the writer of Ecclesiastes is getting at in Chapter 1, where he famously declares everything as “meaningless,” “vanity” or “smoke,” depending on the translation. He talks about the cycle of the sun; the round and round of the wind; the streams of water emptying into the sea, only to be brought back from whence it came, to repeat the cycle. He’s tired of the never-ending spinning and getting nowhere of life and, like the spinning teapot, it’s making him queasy.

There is certainly a risk of falling into despair at the unending, meaningless, circular way of life. You can feel trapped like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, like the teacher in Ecclesiastes or like an adult on a spinning teacup.

But I wonder, if we were to harness our childlike selves, our spin-loving selves, could we see the thrill, excitement and pleasure in the spinning? Maybe the Teacher is right, maybe it’s all meaningless in the end, a smoke that can’t be grasped or understood.

But that doesn’t mean it has to be hopeless and despairing. Maybe part of the reason we’re called to be like children is that they have an uncanny ability to find pleasure in what we adults have lost the ability to enjoy.

Sarah Groves has a song called “Setting up the Pins,” comparing life to the endless and menial task of setting up bowling pins for the sole purpose of knocking them down again. It’s a contemporary Ecclesiastical image.

She ends the song with this:

“Everyone everywhere some way some how / Are setting up the pins for knocking ’em down / It can feel simple but it’s really profound / . . . / My grandmother had a working song / Hummed it low all day long / Sing for the beauty that’s to be found / In setting up the pins for knocking ’em down.”

There is beauty to be found in this cyclical meaninglessness. It can feel simple but it’s really profound. I see it when I watch my kids spin in delight and I hear it in working songs. There can be hope in the meaninglessness.

Keep your eyes and ears open. It’s in the changing of the seasons; in the repeating life, death and resurrection of creation. Yes, it can feel like an endless cycle, because it is. But I wonder if our perspective and approach determine whether that cycle is tiring and exhausting, or beautiful and profound. I’m quite happy with an endless cycle when it includes the hope of resurrection.

Joshua Penfold (penfoldjoshua@gmail.com) blunderingly believes in the bewildering, bizarre, yet beautiful Bible.

Read more Tales from the Unending Story:
Living in the middle
Launched into oblivion
Sovereign of good and bad
God as our inheritance
Praying for the prophets

(Photo by Skylar Sahakian/Unsplash)

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