Gretta: “I told you, I write songs from time to time.”
Dan: “Well what do you write them for?”
Gretta: “What do you mean what for? For my pleasure.”
The film “Begin Again,” from which the above dialogue is taken, centers on the making of an album by a burned-out record producer and an artist who never intended to take the stage. The film circles around the question put forth in this bit of script above: What’s it for? Why are you doing what you’re doing?
Throughout the film, the effects of different motivations toward the work of the music industry play out in the lives of the characters. A long, stable relationship falls apart because of one character’s working for the affirmation and love of his audience. A big-shot label executive misses the chance to sign a great talent because of his working for the money in it for him. A deep depression begins to lift when Dan, a central character, sees the relationships being repaired when he lets go of an image and identity in his work and instead just enjoys exercising his talents.
In the end, the album the film is focused on is made, and Gretta, the artist, decides to sell it online for just $1. It was never about the money for her. The satisfaction came in doing what she loved to do, not making money from it.
The film’s ultimate resolution is seen in the emotions of the two main characters. After the work is done, both are left in places of contentment. There’s happiness despite the relatively unchanged circumstances of their lives – Dan is still struggling in his work, and Gretta is still left alone.
It might seem like all the work put in over the course of the film was worthless. The album is suggested to be a successful in its first few days, but there’s no way to know if it would have continued to be. There’s no suggestion of a long and illustrious career ahead of Gretta and Dan. In fact, Dan’s career seems to have already come and gone. So what is the film suggesting? Why are an hour and a half about the circumstances before and during the making of an album and only the last 10 focused on its completion?
I think the film is making a point about our motivations to work as just one of its main thrusts. The film is about doing what you’ve got a talent and a passion for, even when the whole world tells you it doesn’t make sense, that it’s worthless.
I see the same theme when I read Ecclesiastes 2:17-26. I see someone who has experienced the disappointment of relying on material wealth to satisfy. It’s worthless to work for material gain, because it all is left behind to another’s care. The passage is circling the question: Why do we work? What is it for?
First, I think the passage is saying we can’t work for our identity. I’m particularly guilty of trying to do this. When I think about who I am, I often think of what I do. I tie much of myself into my work. When I think about jobs I think more about the kind of person that does a certain job than the kind of actual work that job might entail. Who I want to be and what I want to do are almost synonymous.
While I think the desire to be really deeply invested in the work that I do is good and productive, Ecclesiastes is obviously telling me that trying to find my identity in it will only end in heartbreak. In a broken world, there will always be an element of toil. Something about work will fall short, and if I base who I am in what I do, then I’m setting myself up for constant disappointment. No, it’s not wise to let my work define me, but it’s a trap of folly that I easily fall into. I know my identity is in Christ, but many days it’s hard to live that way.
This passage also seems to be saying that we cannot work with an eye to gain material comfort or possessions. This pursuit is just “a chasing after the wind.” Ecclesiastes makes it abundantly clear that wealth for its own sake is meaningless, a pit for those who chase after it. There’s a radical sorrow expressed in these verses when the author realizes that everything he has worked for is not enjoyed forever by the worker, but passed off to the next generation. Whatever worldly reward we work for, it will eventually disappoint.
For me, it’s tempting to work for the idea of life that I want. Not quite the quintessential “American Dream,” but still a fantasy of what wealth and success could afford me. Again, it’s part of the identity that I receive from my work. If I do this kind of job, I will have this kind of life. Or, many times, I find my motivation for working hard at whatever is in front of me in the affirmation I receive from others for a job well done. What happens when I work hard and nobody notices? Will I then look on my toil as meaningless and a waste of my time?
There has to be something bigger, more permanent in view. What freedom there would be in truly seeing my work as my way of serving God’s plan, seeing a paycheck not as a motivating reward but a gift that enables me to help others and cultivate measures of joy in the world I’ve been put in, seeing all the affirmation I need in God’s words about me.
The contrast at the conclusion of this passage of Ecclesiastes is interesting. The reward for the worker who is trusting God is not wealth, as we would love to believe, but a state of contentment. The person who views Christ as his true treasure uses the physical treasure he is given wisely and finds happiness with what he has. He enjoys his work because it is rooted in trust in God. The one who works for gain in this world is left constantly searching for more and losing what he already has. The only permanent treasure is God. Is He what I am working for?