The last few weeks I have been making some serious headway on my novel-in-progress, and it’s felt pretty good. But in those last few weeks I have also had a few emotional mini-crises while reading the news and thinking about the state of the world and what the future might look like, and I have had to stop and ask myself, “What’s the point? Should I really be spending my time working on a silly novel right now? Should I be indulging in a dinosaur obsession when the world seems be imploding? Or should I be using my energy more productively somehow?”
Thankfully, greater minds than mine have pondered these same themes, and come up with much better answers that I could.
It’s probably not surprising, but during times of distress I always find my greatest comfort in books and reading. During our current crisis, I’ve found solace particularly in two essays by C.S. Lewis, “Learning in War-Time” which can be found in the collection The Weight of Glory and “On Living in an Atomic Age” which can be found in the collection On Present Concerns. Though written almost ten years apart, in 1939 and 1948 respectively, both essays were written under the shadow of the second World War, after Lewis himself had fought in the trenches of the first one. Essentially, both essays seek to address the questions, “What do we do?” And Lewis’ answer is simple: Live your life, as humans have always lived their lives.
Lewis points out that there has never been a shortage of devastating crises in the history of civilization; from Viking raids to famines to wars and, yes, to plagues. Lewis says, “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.” And yet culture has always continued, and often flourished, during the most difficult times in history. It’s something wholly fascinating about the human spirit that our greatest accomplishments and our most beautiful art can come out of the most tragic circumstances. But one of the things to remember is that those tragic circumstances are not the exceptions in history or in our lives in general, they are actually the norm. And it’s because humanity continues to live our lives during those tragedies that civilization continues on as well. We continue to make art, to plant our gardens, to love our families, to move forward day by day, week by week, year by year.
But once we accept that we must continue on, the question becomes “Doing what?” Should we all be learning to sew to make face masks right now? Should we be trying to master technology so that we can all video chat all of the time? Should we be handing over all of our civil rights so that the government can keep us “safe”? (Sorry, that’s a different rant.)
Again, what we need to understand is really that not much has changed. You and I are still the same people we were two months ago, we still have the same talents and abilities, the same natural inclinations, the same vocations. Perhaps the crisis has brought some things into a clearer focus, perhaps you have had time to sit and think about what’s really important to you, and perhaps some changes do need to be made in your life. But this is a good time to be thinking about those things. Cooking a healthy meal for your family and sharing it at the table, helping kids with their homework, checking in with your friends and family to make sure they are okay, these are all worthy endeavors in fighting against the pandemic. After all, we want to come out of this with our mental health as well as our physical health intact. And the greatest good that we can do is for those immediately around us and connected to us. When asked what one could do to change the world, St. Mother Teresa is attributed with saying, “Go home and love your family.”
So what am I going to do? I’m going to keep working on this novel, and maybe even finish it by the time I can safely leave my house again, because our world needs good stories. I’m going to make a point of telling people that I love them and that I miss seeing their faces, because it’s the truth. I’m going to read and pray and seek to improve myself as best I can. I’m going to live my life.
Lewis said this in regards to war, but it applies equally well to the pandemic, “What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent; 100 percent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased.” Yes, the coronavirus might bring death sooner rather than later for some, but the truth is that death comes eventually no matter what. It’s rarely peaceful, painless, or convenient. So what do we do? We try to live right as best we can. We make the most out of the time that is given to us.
I don’t want to minimize the current crisis or the fear and devastation that are ravaging our civilization. It’s not a fun time that we are living in right now. But we don’t have much control over any of that, and the sooner that we can accept that the sooner we can move forward with the things that we do have control over.
And right now I have control over the pages that need to be written.
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