For anyone who regularly reads this blog, you might remember me writing a post in March of this year about C. S. Lewis’s essay “On Living in an Atomic Age,” from his book “Present Concerns.” As it’s become clearer to me that COVID-19 – particularly in the United States – is likely to continue to be a source of concern well into next year, and as my family increasingly exposes itself to the risk of contracting the virus (especially as school opens), I’ve continued to reflect on this essay as a way to come to terms with my feelings of anxiety.
Although I recognize the atomic bomb has substantially greater risk to humanity than COVID-19, I’m going to take the liberty to replace Lewis’s references to the atomic bomb with references to the COVID-19 pandemic to make the connections as clear as possible:
“In one way we think a great deal too much about COVID-19. ‘How are we to live in an age of pandemic?’ I am tempted to reply: ‘Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night…
In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before COVID: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways… It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.
This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are going to catch COVID, let the virus when it finds us doing sensible and human things – praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis… Disease may break our bodies, but it need not dominate our minds…
What the wars and the weather… and COVID have really done is remind us forcibly of the sort of world we are living in and which… we were beginning to forget. And this reminder is, so far as it goes, a good thing. We have been waked from a pretty dream, and now we can begin to talk about realities.”
There are three main insights I gain from this.
First is one of radical acceptance. In addition to the painful consequences of racism and job / financial insecurity that this year has brought to the forefront of our minds, COVID-19 teaches us how this world is broken.
This leads to a second realization, that I am in a state of mourning. And, I’m not the only one. In fact, Michelle Obama recently labelled her experience “low-grade depression.” I personally wouldn’t go that far, but there is a sense of loss I feel this year with my realization of the true state of the world. The more people I talk to about the state of the world, the more common I believe many people are grieving.
I still listen to sermons from the first church my lovely wife and I attended when we were first married, and the message a few weeks ago was about the beattitude: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). The meaning of this teaching has always eluded me, but the speaker, Greg Boyd, makes the point that this is a statement about our collective state in this fallen world, that it refers to a sense of longing we all have for a better place. Recognizing this attitude opens up the doorway to a better future, as we identify actions we can take to make the world better and put our trust and hope in God who ultimately is our only source of real fulfillment.
As Lewis writes toward the end of his essay:
“We must simply accept it that we are spirits, free and rational beings, at present inhabiting an irrational universe, and must draw the conclusion that we are not derived from it. We are strangers here. We come from somewhere else… There is ‘another world,’ and that is where we come from. And that explains why we do not feel at home here.”
Third, and finally, in the midst of brokenness, mourning, and longing, I can continue to do what is sensible and human (my favorite phrase in Lewis’s essay). This includes following public health guidelines for the pandemic in sensible ways (generally avoiding large, indoor gatherings; staying 6 feet apart; and wearing a mask when around others indoors) and at the same time doing those things that bring me most alive. It’s not either / or; it’s both / and.
This pandemic clearly is not a sprint; it’s a marathon. Life probably will never return to “normal” (at least as we knew it before), and chaos is likely to continue until mid-2021. Coming to terms with some of the above ideas helps me to run the race well, with endurance, vitality, and peace.