NICHOLS: through the looking glass at COVID

CS Lewis, the great mind who imagined such delightful stories as the Tales of Narnia, Screwtape Letters, Screwtape Proposes a Toast, plus works of science fiction, philosophy, religion, and much more, and then put them on paper for the pleasure and amusement of humanity passed the torch on to others (perhaps less wise and erudite) almost 60 years ago. So what could he possibly say to us as society totters on the brink of COVID desperation in the waning months of 2020?

Well, he’s still read and reread by uncounted millions the world around so maybe there are some gems of wisdom buried in all those words that could speak to us as we fret and stew and blame our way through the current plague.

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Don’t be deceived. COVID was not the first and will not be the last plague to strike this unhappy planet. Lessons we learn from this teacher might be useful for the next iteration. 

I’m not referring to the non-stop barrage of official advice inflicted on us from dawn until midnight: wash, distance, mask, isolate; wash, distance, mask, isolate; wash, distance, mask, isolate. Perhaps we should do all that. They are not new ideas. With the exception of masking, one can find all the other counsel in the ancient Scriptures – along with much more.

What might CS Lewis think about the fear and frenzy that has captured the modern world with the appearance of COVID?

We can only guess about what he would say. But maybe there are a few hints in the following clip from a speech he delivered in 1948 when the threat of atomic incineration was registering heavily on people’s minds and disturbing the mental equilibrium of the world. Are there principles we can apply to our own age of COVID without undermining the practical things we can do to protect ourselves and others?

Read on.

Here’s what CSL said about the mental maturity required to live under the bomb:

“In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. ‘How are we to live in an atomic age?’ 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; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.’

“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 the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. 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 all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”*

CSL is talking here about our attitudes which, to a large extent will inform our actions and our emotions. I don’t think he would advocate irresponsible behaviour but neither would he suggest that we retreat from all the normal things that identify us as human.

So, let’s not “exaggerate the novelty of our situation;” much as we have heard the adjective “unprecedented” scattered about in the news, COVID is not unprecedented. In one form or another, humanity has been routinely plagued since we sold out to Lucifer.

CSL tells us to “pull ourselves together” and do life as normally as possible under the restrictions imposed on us.

After all, driving routes 29, 52, 97, and 29 from Chetwynd back to Chetwynd puts me at greater risk of premature death than does COVID – although for me any death now would not likely be considered premature. Painful? Perhaps. Messy? Maybe. Not premature.

Do I think I won’t contract COVID? No. I just have more important things about which to think while avoiding the plague.

By the way, as the Ancients taught us: “A prudent [person] foresees evil and [takes precautions]” whether driving, climbing a ladder, or warding off COVID.

* “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays.

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