Commentary by Dr. Ursula A. Falk


Vanitas, Vanitatum, Vanitas


Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.  In Kohelet these words can be translated as “Futility of futilities, all is futile” (“Havel havelim, hachol havel”).  This Latin phrase and its meaning came to mind when a good friend was placed in a nursing home, where she helplessly smiled a painted on smile while she had become one of the helpless, would be grateful masses of old agers.  Like the majority of mortals, she was a proud middle class woman who kept her late husband well cared for.  Her home was a meticulously kept house with all of the fineries that make up a comfortable place.  Memories of happy times were on the walls which were so prominently displayed.  The surrounding garden was a well kept display of beautiful flowers where Hannah had painstakingly, lovingly attended each and every blossom.

She and her spouse had plans.  They valued each other and their possessions and spent much time saving their income to enhance their lives.  They were also future oriented and frequently did not indulge in a vacation that they longed for.  Instead they kept their dwelling in top order with everything in place and well cared for.  They were concerned about even the smallest flaw of possible disorder in addition to their worry that their acquaintances should think well of them.  They tried very hard to please and were prideful of their possessions. Much time was spent in ascertaining that their friends thought of them with admiration for the “perfect” environment that they had created.  They had a very strong need to be respected and praised for their many accomplishments.

When the husband died Hanna’s world crumbled.  A niece took over her life.  She continued for a short while to visit, sort out the possessions that “were no longer needed” and gave Hanna the feeling that she was not capable and could not function.  With cool resolve she ultimately placed this proud meticulous woman into a nursing home where she could be “taken care of”.  Her perfect home was dissolved with all of its memories and was sold within a month.  Everything that had meant so much was gone.

What Hannah experienced is not an uncommon phenomenon.  We humans put so much stock in that which is ours, in possessions and attributes that can disappear in the proverbial blink of an eye.

Those of us who lived through the Nazi era learned the concept of Vanitas very rapidly. A  wealthy one of our brethren at the time of the beginning of the Holocaust approached a poor woman and said to her:  We are now in the same “niveau” (environment).  In the same sinking ship.  All Jews were considered the same.  All were considered “vermin”, all were annihilated if they could not find a way to escape. All of our earthly goods were confiscated by the Nazi killers and if we were fortunate we were left with a torn dress or pants and our lives.  We learned about vanity and the futility of what had once been our precious pride.  We learned about grief and its roots.  We learned how deep the feeling of unhappiness is when we lose someone we love, someone who was near and dear to us.  We learned the meaning of aloneness, of loneliness!  We learned what it feels like to be out of context, how it is never to feel a sense of belonging, the brevity as well as the importance of life.  We learned that we will never feel totally at home, of belonging anywhere completely.  We realize the value of the “Lev Tov” (good heart), the loving giving person who understands other people's suffering, the person who is humble, no matter what or how high his rank.  Let us remember that vanity of vanities, all is vanity!


Dr. Ursula A. Falk is a psychotherapist in private practice and the co-author, with Dr. Gerhard Falk, of  Deviant Nurses & Improper Patient Care (2006).

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