Culture & Ethics
Living Amid a Pandemic: Wisdom from C.S. Lewis
“Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.” — C.S. Lewis.
It’s been a blissfully sunny week in Seattle — the kind of week Seattleites pine for after their gray and soggy winters. The official start of spring isn’t until today, but the cherry blossoms have already been out for a long time.
Of course, it doesn’t really matter this year.
The crowds have been told to stay away from the cherry trees — and from everything else, for that matter. The arrival of spring in 2020 isn’t bringing hope and a sense of new life. It’s bringing fear.
Draconian and Confusing
Churches are shuttered to the public. So are restaurants (except for takeout). So are movie theaters, barbershops, and gyms. Grocery stores are still open, but their shelves are increasingly bare — not just of hand sanitizer and toilet paper (those vanished days ago) — but now of bleach, paper towels, and even meat and poultry. Businesses struggle to operate. Each new day brings increasingly draconian (not to mention conflicting and confusing) orders issued by multiple layers of bureaucracy — all assuring us they are acting in our best interests in the name of science. The occasional tone-deafness of the bureaucrats might be amusing in a novel. The CDC website patiently instructs people about how they can create their own disinfectant with bleach or rubbing alcohol. It would be more helpful if the CDC explained how to actually acquire either liquid — since neither is readily available in stores.
Meanwhile, the current pandemic has further exposed the most obnoxious features of the American news media. On the one hand, media outlets fan the flames of fear with their doomsday coverage. On the other hand, when ordinary people actually take the doomsday coverage seriously, those same media outlets chide them for acting as if the doomsday reporting is correct and rushing to stores to stock up on disinfectants and food.
The tendency during any crisis is to become all-consumed by it. That was true after 9/11, and it is true now. Obviously, if you are dealing with the illness of a loved one with COVID-19, there is good reason to be consumed. So too if you are facing financial destruction or have lost your job because of government-imposed shutdowns — shutdowns that may well be called for, but are nevertheless ruinous to many and even corrosive of a free society in some cases.
Resisting a Temptation to Obsess
As the outbreak continues to unfold, it may get harder and harder to focus on anything besides the pandemic. Nevertheless, we should resist the temptation to let it dominate our lives.
Anglo-Irish writer C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) was no stranger to fears wrought by pandemics. During his childhood in Belfast, Northern Ireland, more than a million people a year in Europe died from tuberculosis (TB), making it “one of the most feared diseases in the world.” In Ireland itself, more than 11,000 people a year died from TB, many of them young people. In fact, among youths aged 15 to 25, a terrifying 55.4 percent of all deaths in Belfast were due to TB. Years later, Lewis’s brother Warren still recalled the fear that permeated every upper middle class home in Belfast, and the elaborate measures people took to prevent infection. His parents were especially concerned about allowing their sons to be exposed to the rain and damp, worrying that TB might develop as a result.
Then, as now, isolation reigned as a chief strategy for protection. The Lewis brothers were quarantined inside their home whenever it rained — which, given the weather in Ireland, meant their confinement often seemed endless. They were ordered inside at the first drops of rain, and then penned inside their nursery, with a gate put across the door so they couldn’t get out. “We spent an extraordinary amount of our time shut up indoors,” remembered Warren. “We would gaze out of our nursery window at the slanting rain and the grey skies, and there, beyond a mile or so of sodden meadow, we would see the dim high line of the Castlereagh Hills — our world’s limit, a distant land, strange and unattainable.” (W.H. Lewis, “Memoir of C.S. Lewis,” published in Letters of C.S. Lewis)
Legacy of a Confinement
Although difficult for two active children to tolerate, the confinement was not wasted. Indeed, according to Warren Lewis, it bequeathed a long-term legacy:
[T]his recurring imprisonment gave us occasion and stimulus to develop the habit of creative imagination. We learnt to draw: my brother made his first attempts at writing: together we devised the imaginary country of “Boxen,” which proliferated hugely and became our solace and joy for many years to come. And so, in circumstances that might have been merely dull and depressing, my brother’s gifts began to develop; and it may not be fanciful to see, in that childhood staring out to unattainable hills, some first beginnings of a vision and viewpoint that ran through the work of his maturity.
(W.H. Lewis, “Memoir of C.S. Lewis”)
There are other terrors beside pandemics, of course, and C.S. Lewis experienced some of them as well. Like many young men of his era, he served — and was wounded — on the hellish front lines of World War I. Two decades later, as an Oxford academic, he faced another world war — this time against Hitler’s Germany.
As the Nazis swept over Europe and the grim new reality began to set in, many likely wondered what the use of learning was at a time like that. Shouldn’t everyone focus instead on the war effort 24/7? A few weeks after the war started, Lewis sought to answer this question in a sermon that was later published as “Learning in War-Time.”
Substitute “Pandemic” for “War”
His advice seems eerily applicable to our own situation, just substitute “pandemic” for “war”:
I think it important to try to see the present calamity in a true perspective. The war creates no absolutely new situation; it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil, like the nineteenth century, turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of crises, alarms, difficulties, emergencies. Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never comes.
(C.S. Lewis, “Learning in War-Time,” in The Weight of Glory)
In coming days, you and your loved ones may struggle with fear and anxiety and worry. You may also find yourselves with more time on your hands than you know what to do with.
Make the most of the opportunity.
Learn a new skill. Read good books. Watch inspiring films. Reconnect with your family by having discussions about things that matter.
Above all, remember the wise admonition of C.S. Lewis: “If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun.”
Author’s note: The description of Warren Lewis’s recollections about the fear of TB in the Lewis household is based on unpublished passages in W.H. Lewis, “C.S Lewis: A Biography,” a manuscript on deposit at the Marion Wade Center, Wheaton College.
Photo: Cherry blossoms on the campus of the University of Washington, Seattle. Authorities are telling would-be visitors to stay away; by D. Guillaime / CC BY-SA.