Wednesday 12 March 2008

Little Boxes, little boxes: Life imitates art

I saw an article recently about student accommodation made from recycled shipping containers my first my response was to be blown away by the ingenuity (I run a college and we are constructing a new postgrad building). I've written about the idea from a construction perspective on my blog devoted to the our new development. But as I looked at the concept I was reminded of the song "Little Boxes" and started to sing it (good thing you weren't there!).

Little Boxes

Malvina Reynolds' song "Little Boxes" (1962) was a big hit when I was growing up (you can listen to it here). Apparently, Malvina and her husband were on their way from Berkeley (where they lived) to San Francisco when Malvina handed the wheel to her husband when inspired by the scenes out the window to write the song. As I looked at the shipping container building I thought to myself, is life imitating art? Here are the words.

Little boxes on the hillside, Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside, Little boxes all the same.
There's a green one and a pink one And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky And they all look just the same.

And the people in the houses All went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes And they came out all the same,
And there's doctors and lawyers, And business executives,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky And they all look just the same.

And they all play on the golf course And drink their martinis dry,
And they all have pretty children And the children go to school,
And the children go to summer camp And then to the university,
Where they are put in boxes And they come out all the same.

And the boys go into business And marry and raise a family,
In boxes made of ticky tacky And they all look just the same.
There's a green one and a pink one And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky And they all look just the same.

Of course Malvina was making a point that went much further than my superficial connection. She was struck by the superficiality and seeming sameness of suburban life that seems to mirror the sameness of streets and houses. This provided her with the metaphor for her song about life's conformity and shallowness in the USA. People following the same paths, driven by the same values, priorities and life goals. A tread mill of conformity that affects where people live, what they study, the jobs they seek, the way they shape their children's lives and so on. Lives of 'ticky tacky'; words now with a dictionary meaning inspired by the song - "unimaginative and, often, tasteless or shoddy uniformity".

Vanity of vanities

This reminded me of The Teacher (or the Preacher) in the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible who offers a commentary on the foolishness of a life driven by shallow and limited motives. The writer's constant cry is "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity" (Eccl 1:2). Ecclesiastes was written for people just like Malvina Reynolds who look at the world and question its lack of real and significant purpose. Where can meaning be found in the monotony of life? The Preacher begins by looking at life's seeming futility (Eccl 1:3-11).

What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again.
All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said, "See, this is new"?
It has been already in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance of later things
yet to be among those who come after.

Where can one find meaning in this seeming world of 'ticky tacky'? On the treadmill of life (Eccl 1:3-11), how can satisfaction be gained? The Preacher talks of seeking wisdom and meaning but finding more vanity. He looks to pleasure, the satisfaction of toil and hard work - more vanity (Eccl 1:12-2:11)! But as if that isn't enough, there is time that slips away (Eccl 3:1-15) and then, the realisation that there is evil as tyrannical as the death that awaits us all (Eccl 3:16-4:16). But "there is nothing new under the sun" (Eccl 1:9b).

It's as if the Preacher dismantles any hope that we might find meaning and purpose in life before he finally begins to reveal his ultimate truth. As he reaches chapters 11 and 12 he fully reveals his hand, and the point of his message is made clear. We are to remember God in the days of our youth (Eccl 12:1), to be bold (Eccl 11:1-6), to rejoice in God's goodness (Eccl 11:7-10), to be godly (Eccl 12:1-8), and finally, the end of the matter - to fear God!

"The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil" (Eccl 12: 13, 14).

If life's ultimate satisfaction is sought in houses, possessions, toil, pleasure, education or knowledge - in fact anything other than dependence on God - then all will be just ticky tacky. God's ultimate purpose for his people is to know him, to fear him and to follow him. Why chase after the wind when you can have a relationship with the living God through his Son (Galatians 3:26).

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