Friends, in 1939, during WWII, C.S. Lewis wrote Learning in Wartime. If you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to do so. You can access it here.
C.S. Lewis’ words are wise words indeed and have much to say to us here and now. And, whilst we are not in a war per se as Lewis was referring to in WWII, we are however in a war-like scenario with an invisible enemy that does kill people and livelihoods. Moreover, the Pandemic is global and every nation on Earth has been dealing with it.
I want to dedicate this to everyone who is:
- undertaking study, training and education, learning and growing or
- parenting school age children or
- trying to do school from home amidst the pandemic / studying online
- needing to retrain and educate yourselves for the next season
Talking to his students in Oxford in 1939, Lewis reminded them that the crisis they faced, despite its scale and ferocity, would in some sense, always be with them. In other words, he reminded them that a crisis of some form would perpetually threaten their personal growth and academic pursuits.
Indeed, there would always be a rationalisation to put off schooling. Those crises, in many ways, are nothing new in the lives of individual students:
“I think it important to try to see the present calamity in a true perspective, The war [the pandemic] creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. We are mistaken when we compare war/pandemic with ‘normal life.’’
Life has never been normal.
Secondly, Lewis also awakened his audience to the fact that far beyond the conflict with Nazi Germany lay a much more permanent war between good and evil.
We might be tempted to think that engaging in patient, careful scholarship at such times is akin to “fiddling while Rome burns”. Lewis addresses these sorts of objections to learning and growth due to the uncertainties and urgencies of World War II by arguing that we must attempt to “see the present calamity in a true perspective”.
A war (or a pandemic) does not really create a “new situation” – rather, it forces us to recognise “the permanent human situation” that people have always “lived on the edge of a precipice”. Normal life is a myth – if we wait for optimal conditions before searching out knowledge of what is true, good, and beautiful, we will never begin. Lewis reminds us that past generations had their share of crises and challenges, yet human beings chose to pursue knowledge and cultural activities anyway.
Lewis also argues that we should not sharply distinguish between our “natural” and “spiritual” human activities since every duty is a religious duty. Whether someone is a composer or cleaner, a classicist or carpenter, their natural work becomes spiritual when they offer it humbly “as to the Lord”. In this way, intellectual pursuits of knowledge and beauty – even and perhaps especially in wartime – can and do glorify God ( though Lewis warns against making scholarly success into an idol).
This begs the question – what vocations are “essential” in a modern society?
During the COVID-19 pandemic, essential workers are needed to remain on the job. The work of philosophers, historians, and theologians (for example) may seem expendable, while the work of emergency doctors, vaccine researchers and truck drivers is deemed critical. Without devaluing the important work these workers do, I wonder if our definition of essential work is short sighted – particularly when we consider what truly fosters Human Flourishing?
Lewis goes on to describe three enemies that would seek to rise up against us as we learn in war-time: distraction; anxiety; and fear.
This takes the form of preoccupation with social media, constantly scrolling Twitter and searching Google to follow the latest news and analysis about the number of confirmed coronavirus cases; the perilous economic situation; and the state of political turmoil in Canberra, Washington, London, or China. T
This is not an obvious enemy to real learning and growth – and it feels natural to stay up-to-date on current events. Besides, who wants to appear uninformed when people are losing their jobs and suffering from a lethal virus? Such “excitement” or distraction hinders us from pursuing what Cal Newport calls “deep work”.
You and I crave what seems immediate, exciting, and relevant, and we are often all-too-willing to break from our deep work that feels tedious or mundane to make sure that we do not miss out on a friend’s status update or the latest headlines about today’s troubles.
Lewis cautions: “if we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work”. There’s never really an optimal time to learn an ancient language or to write a monograph or a thesis. We must pursue knowledge and the work of scholarship even when conditions seem unsuitable, because “favourable conditions never come”.
So, friends, there will always be a reason why you and I think now is not the time to continue your education and training and personal growth. I would argue that now, although challenging times, is actually a very good time to actively pursue learning and growth.
There is much anxiety about these days, acute and chronic. Anxiety is contagious and is usually projected to some future state of what could happen or what we think the future will hold.
Lewis reminds us by saying,
“Happy work is best done by the man who takes his long-term plans somewhat lightly and works from moment to moment ‘as to the Lord’’. The present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received”.
Therefore, we should not respond to the foe of “frustration” with inaction like the foolish servant who hid his master’s money in the ground rather than investing it, as we read in Matthew chapter 25.
Fear is the third enemy that would confront those who would learn in wartime or in a Pandemic. The link to the first 2 becomes clear regarding anxiety, especially systemic anxiety, and distraction. What we now feed our minds with via traditional and social media becomes paramount for healthy thinking and not being overrun with fear.
The pandemic has now impacted the whole world and hundreds of thousands have died. It is tragic and there is real suffering, pain and death. Yet, we seek to magnify that which is good and true and eternal, not magnify fear and what may or may not happen. If we are honest with ourselves, some days you and I do this well – and other days not so well.
Lewis in his direct but eloquent words encourages us that in this world, in this life we have, the death rate is still 100%. None of us are getting out of here alive, and so we remember the words of Moses in Psalm 90
‘’Teach us, Oh Lord, to number our days so we gain a heart of wisdom”’
(As a sidebar – I’m up to 17,984 days alive. It’s most likely that I have less days ahead of me than I do behind me. Only God knows how many I have left.
But I’m glad about that. Because every day matters).
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Don’t miss Part 2 of our blog, where Nic unpacks the top seven things we can all put in place to optimise our learning and growth during in under pressure.