Sometimes the voices of the past are the ones we need most in the present. There is one in particular I revisit when the world goes wobbly. I have dog-eared the pages in the book where this voice resides.
The voice belongs to C.S. Lewis who delivered an address titled “Learning in Wartime.” It was October 1939, and the Brits were engaged in World War II. Oxford University students were questioning the value and appropriateness of pursuing studies during a time of war.
Lewis was a good one to ask as he was both a scholar and war veteran. He served in World War I, in which his best friend was killed and Lewis himself was severely wounded, recuperated and returned to duty. His response was formed by a melding of time, wisdom and experience.
Many of us are asking the same questions those students asked. Do we simply forge ahead with ordinary lives, engage in work, coffee and conversation with friends, and even plan for pleasures like ballgames and birthday parties against the backdrop of a maternity hospital being bombed and cities now a heap of smoldering rubble in Ukraine?
Is it right to enjoy cheerful daffodils while images of refugees fleeing their homeland flash on the television?
The first thing Lewis did in his address was reframe the matter in a larger perspective. To paraphrase, he said we make decisions and choices all the time against an ominous backdrop of eternity. So how is it we function in the shadow of that enormity, but not under other shadows?
He said ceasing to pursue life because shadows loom, is to admit we have rejected the voice of reason and have made ourselves wide open to the voices of our nerves and mass emotions.
Voices of nerves and mass emotions have become all-too frequent companions these days, most often the product of lingering too long before a computer screen or cable news channels. There is a fine line between being well-informed and so overly informed that you tilt toward incapacitated.
Lewis said if we postpone the quest for knowledge and beauty until the circumstances around us are secure, we would never search.
How many times have you waited for life to return to normal only to find normal never truly comes? Some of our best days may be the ones that are simply uneventful.
Lewis said if we suspend intellectual and aesthetic activity, we only succeed in substituting a worse cultural life for a better one.
“If we don’t read good books, we’ll read bad books. If we don’t go on thinking rationally, we’ll think irrationally.”
The pull of fears and emotions is tangible, yet Lewis encouraged listeners to humbly move forward with living “as best you can.”
I like that, even when the best we can do is take three steps forward and two back. And so we keep learning, keep living, keep working, keep loving and keep praying.
As best we can.