On Considering Death

Thanks to Jo Anne for sharing the following C.S. Lewis quote:

“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.

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

As I began verifying the quote it was quickly apparent it has received a lot of Internet attention in the past several weeks.  Many people are rushing to caution against interpreting C.S. Lewis incorrectly and thinking he would encourage us to not take precautions against COVID-19.  How quickly we want to interpret things to support our point of view or discourage competing views!

Rather than go this direction, I’ll offer this observation.  Lewis lived in a time when mortality was a much more real thing.  Not that people have ceased dying since the mind-20th century, but certainly our familiarity with death has continued that drastic decrease already underway in Lewis’ day.  As he points out aptly from history, death has long been an all-too-familiar companion to vast majorities of people.  Glancing through history books where the sweep of empires roils back and forth through the pages should give ample evidence death was more common and more brutal than we are accustomed to thinking of it these days.  Lewis himself served in World War I and lived through World War II.  He understood firsthand what it looks like when millions of people suddenly encounter death.

Now, death is an anomaly in the West.  At least death before a certain age.  Now we presume death is something primarily for the unfortunate few with pre-existing conditions or for the elderly.  We hide death away in sanitized rooms with strict visiting hours and palliative care to mask the reality of death for those who would prefer not to face it head on.  The ever-increasing average life span in the last century has lulled many people into a false confidence that death may – for now – be an unfortunate eventuality, but  we need pay it little mind until we are of a certain age.

Frankly our secular culture demands this.  If there is nothing more to life and existence than a random assemblage of atoms for an infinitesimally small period of time and then nothing but a rather swift dissipation, then this life becomes extraordinarily important.  Ironic, as we insist life is random and without meaning that we should cling to it all the more tightly!  Yet this is who we are.  Enlightened materialists unable to cope with the cold reality of the meaninglessness we have clothed our lives in, yet scoffing at the foolish theists who insist on the nobility and meaning and purpose of our bare, unadorned nakedness.  It is not what we accomplish that gives our lives meaning, they dare to say, but simply that we are.  Silliness, of course.  And our culture returns to ignoring death as long as possible, studiously occupying ourselves with any number of equally unimportant and random details.

Lewis holds a far more realistic point of view, which is that life is desperately unpredictable despite our attempts to make it predictable.  None of our advances have changed this reality but, given a broader range of alleged understanding we pretend our information is somehow power.  And it isn’t that we don’t have some power.  Anti-biotics and better understandings of hygiene have greatly improved both quality and length of life, as have advances in dentistry, surgery, and a host of other -ies.  But it only takes another global conflict of the micro-biological (COVID-19) or macro-biological sort (warfare) to remind us how easily our routines and control is upended.

Another important thing to bear in mind when reading Lewis’ quote is that he is speaking to Christians.  His words make no sense (or have no basis for making sense) to a non-theist.  Only the Christian can truly live this life in confidence and hope and joy, knowing that death is an unpleasant passage to something much grander and larger and better.  The Christian should not despise this life, but they should hold it in the proper relationship to the scope of eternity – if that is possible.  So we exhort the living continually and mourn the dead in Christ for a time.  We acknowledge our mortality with an even eye and a steady hand, neither rushing towards it prematurely nor fleeing from it inordinately.

This allows the Christian to be brave and courageous, and to take risks for the sake of loving our neighbor that may be admirable to non-theists but must ultimately  be (in their eyes) the height of folly.  So it is that Christians have always laid their lives down in service to those in need when nobody else was willing to take the risk.  Christians have died with the victims of plague and casualties of war they tended to, just as their patients died.  Their courage and love has been often noted, and hopefully will be emulated today and for as long as we wait for our Lord’s return.

So don’t be too quick to co-opt Lewis’ words to either disparage precautions against contagion or to summon Christians to adherence to social distancing.  Rather, in Christ may his followers live this day in joy, loving God and neighbor as we are given opportunity to do so and without too much over-calculating of the possible costs.  All of the costs have ultimately already been paid for us by Christ.  Let us love our neighbors who insist on safe distances between us and them, but let us be the first to show love and care for those who do not have that luxury.  We are all of us in the Father’s hands.  What more could we ask for?

 

 

5 Responses to “On Considering Death”

  1. passionfortruths Says:

    I believe logic/intelligence need to go hand in hand with intuition, compassion and faith. It’s imperative to be balanced especially during these times. 💖⚖️💖

    • mrpaulnelson Says:

      Hi and welcome! Yes, all of these things go together, but it becomes ultimately a matter of how we order them. When in conflict which takes precedence? When out of balance, where do we find firm footing? That’s one of the many questions each person has to determine the answer for!

      • passionfortruths Says:

        Absolutely, to each his own… but I observe that certain people don’t put enough effort in balancing themselves..they either go extremely to one way or the other.

      • mrpaulnelson Says:

        Thanks for responding, but I have to respectfully disagree. It isn’t a matter of “to each his own”, else you have no basis for evaluating whether other people have balance or not. The assertion that there are unhealthy extremes people succumb to loses any meaning if there is no baseline, no absolute reality against which to compare. So I don’t think it’s “to each their own”. I believe in an objective truth we cannot change – whether we like it or not. We can only be more closely aligned to and with it than not.

      • passionfortruths Says:

        I meant everyone has his/her own “suitable” method or modality to find balance…not one size fits all.😉

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