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Why might we need the imaginative richness of C. S. Lewis to learn about courage? In their 2019 book, The Stressed Years of Their Lives: Helping Your Kid Survive and Thrive During Their College Years, Janet Hibbs and
Anthony Rostain reported the following statistics:
- 30% of students report being “so depressed it was difficult to function in the past year;”
- Compared with their parent’s generation, “college students today are 50% more likely to say they feel overwhelmed”
- The National Institute of Mental Health reports one half of adolescents and adults have been affected by an anxiety disorder.
- The common person worries for 55 minutes each day on average; those with generalized anxiety disorder average five hours per day.
We live amidst a pandemic of anxiety and depression—a loss of purpose and of hopefulness—a pandemic affecting all ages, especially the young. As Lewis himself noted in Mere Christianity, traumas, phobias, and intense anxieties are not moral failings. Those who struggle with such psychological conditions may well discover it is necessary to seek help from support groups and medical professionals. Nonetheless, almost all of us experience fears and anxieties in ways harming our ability to flourish. I want to share ways in which we might feel such fears and yet still foster courage and strength so we, too, might hear God speaking to us, “Courage, Dear Heart.”
As war broke out across Europe in the fall of 1939, C. S. Lewis returned to teach at the University of Oxford. Lewis himself was no stranger to war and to its accompanying anxieties, frustrations, and, terrors. He himself had fought in the trenches of World War I, eventually being wounded by a bomb inadvertently dropped by English artillery. Some of the men of his generation found themselves called up to serve again in World War II.
In that fall of 1939 in Oxford, Lewis delivered a sermon “On Learning in War-Time” in which he raised the pressing question: Why should anyone engage in university studies during a war, and, not just any war, but such a war in which National Socialists in Germany threatened the very survival of England and all of Europe? Why should we dedicate ourselves to building up human learning and culture when we are in a spiritual war of cosmic proportions? Not only why should we do so, but perhaps more importantly how can we do so?
Lewis writes, “The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human condition so we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.” We have always been amidst the specters of death, suffering, crime, poverty, war. The very drama of being human is to live amidst such fears. Again, imagine yourself arriving as a student at Oxford in the fall of 1939 and watching Germany quickly take over most of Europe.
Amidst these ever-present dangers, Lewis affirms civilizations worthy of the name have sought to build up human culture, to learn from those who have lived before us about the meaning and purpose of life, to scrutinize reality in all its splendor via the natural sciences and humanities. Fighting a war or a pandemic entails more than the fear of death or the desire for physical survival; it is a defense of a way of life.
In an essay in 1948, “On Living in an Atomic Age,” he wrote: “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.”
Lewis identifies specifically the challenges of distraction (or excitement), frustration, and fear as the primary ways in which we fail to live. We might pause for a minute and ask ourselves how often we have given in to such distractions, frustrations, and fears over the past year!
Notice Lewis does not think our deepest challenges are strictly intellectual. Rather our challenges are those of the heart. Even when we know what is good and true, we may fail to act and feel accordingly in the midst of overwhelming feelings and emotions.
The virtue of courage describes the way in which we may come habitually to moderate the distractions, frustrations, and, fears, feeling them and yet not allowing them to overwhelm our hearts and minds. Lewis at times simply describes courage or fortitude as “guts.” We might call it “strength,” “toughness,” “grit”, or “resilience.”
Let us look at some of Lewis’s stories about courage. We have more to learn from his stories than we initially might think. Lewis explains in an essay: “For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.” Stories work simultaneously upon our reason and our imagination and thus help us draw meaning and purpose from the truths of our faith.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
In a scene from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, one of his Chronicles of Narnia series, the characters in the story are sailing in a ship and encounter many different dangers and adventures. At one point, they sail near an island covered in complete darkness, an island in which they are told all their dreams come true. At first the sailors are excited, and then, all of the sudden, they begin rowing as hard as they can to get away from the island: “for it had taken everyone just that half-minute to remember certain dreams they had had—dreams that make you afraid of going to sleep again—and to realize what it would mean to land on a country where dreams come true.” Though the sailors are rowing with all their might, they remain trapped in the darkness and paralyzing fear.
In the midst of this panic, “Lucy whispered, ‘Aslan, Aslan, if ever you loved us at all, send us help now.’ The darkness did not grow any less, but she began to feel a little—a very, very little—better.” Then, all of the sudden, a small beam of light enters the darkness and illumines the ship. “Lucy looked along the beam” and at first saw something like a cross, then an airplane, then eventually she saw it as an albatross. The great bird landed on the prow of the ship and then flew in front to guide them out of the darkness. As it circled the ship, the albatross whispered to Lucy, “‘Courage, dear heart,’ and the voice, she felt sure, was Aslan’s, and with a voice a delicious smell breathed into her face.” Amidst overwhelming fears, the sailors had lost their direction. Their hearts had overwhelmed their heads. Lucy’s, however, did not. She used her head to ask Aslan, a symbolic parallel of Jesus Christ in the Narnia stories, for help. By looking along the light and no longer along her fears, Lucy was able to remember that there is something higher than our fears. Aslan in the story speaks to her, “Courage, dear heart.” We often need help from others and from God not to let fears blind us to what is good and true in life. Lewis calls the island of the fears of nightmares simply “the dark island.” In contrast to truth, which enlightens the intellect, fear darkens the intellect. Into fear’s darkness, courage brings light. With courage, we remember who we are, what makes for our true good and happiness, God and his promises of mercy. As Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, “Faith is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted in spite of your changing moods.”
In another scene from one of The Chronicles of Narnia, Prince Caspian, we hear of Susan who refused to listen to her sister Lucy when Lucy had seen Aslan the great lion telling them to go in a different direction. Later, when Susan is finally able to see Aslan herself, she confesses to Lucy deep down, she knew it was Aslan leading them in a different direction but did not want to follow him, she just wanted to get out of the woods. In this instance, she did not lack knowledge of the right thing to do; she lacked the courage to do it, the willingness to bear the difficulty and associated fears.
Aslan eventually speaks directly to Susan: “After an awful pause, the deep voice said, ‘Susan.’ Susan made no answer but the others thought she was crying. ‘You have listened to fears, child,’ said Aslan. ‘Come, let me breathe on you. Forget them. Are you brave again?’ ‘A little, Aslan,’ said Susan.”
Enduring suffering without giving into terror or despair, confronting evil without giving into panic or fear, all of these actions require the strength of courage. It is not enough to know the right thing to do since we must also be able to act in the midst of situations that occasion intense fears. Love alone cannot be the answer since, as Aquinas observed centuries earlier, fears rise in proportion to our loves, for the greater we love things, the more we fear to lose them.
The Problem of Pain
In Lewis’s book, The Problem of Pain, pains and fears may also play a positive role in breaking down our illusions of self-sufficiency. The ongoing presence of fears and pains remind us: neither we nor our world are as good or perfectible as we like to think. Lewis writes, “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world. We are most keenly aware of God’s character in our suffering. It is when our self-sufficiency is peeled away that we see how weak we really are.” A key aspect of courage is the recognition that life as we know it is filled with evils, pains, and sufferings. They are not temporary aberrations in an otherwise safe and secure world. Simply put: life is painful. Such a recognition allows us to see the need to try to grow in courage in all circumstances in this life.
As we saw earlier with Lewis, all human life is necessarily lived on a precipice. Lewis’s friend J. R. R. Tolkien wrote, “Actually I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’— though it contains (and in legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.” There is something wonderful in the admission that modern technological reasoning is finally incapable of making the world safe and secure and eliminating our paralyzing fears and anxieties. Speaking of courage and fostering it in ourselves bring us closer to reality. We are freed from the illusion of achieving perfection in this life—in ourselves, our families, or our communities. What a relief!
In another war-time writing, Lewis observes this perennial temptation to focus on the things of this world has been exaggerated in modern times: “our whole education tends to fix our minds on this world” (Mere Christianity, bk. 3 ch. 10). Times of war and pandemics may actually help us remember the true good of man is NOT to be found on this earth, that we will never get to a place without fears in this life. We find it so hard to relinquish our illusion of control and entrust ourselves completely into God’s loving hands.
The imperfectability of this life and the resulting need for courage need not lead to quietism but instead may inspire us to act with greater boldness, leaving the results in God’s hands. Lewis himself would go on to teach throughout the war, write many books and countless essays, give many talks in person and on the radio—without any security England would survive or anyone would ever be around to read his books.
In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lewis tells the story of Eustace Scrubb, a spiteful boy who becomes a dragon after going to sleep on a dragon’s hoard of gold with prideful, greedy, and dragonish thoughts. Recall dragons and serpents are symbolic of evil forces in the world and in our hearts, so becoming a dragon is to fall into sin. Among the many difficulties in being a dragon is the problem that Eustace cannot leave the island. He is far too large to ride on the ship and the ocean distances are too far for his flight. The goal of their journey is no longer difficult but now impossible—just as is our journey to heaven with our sins. Eustace eventually attempts to remove his scaly dragon skin by scraping off the outer layer as a snake might shed its skin. He tries three times, but each time his skin remains just as scaly and dragonish underneath. All earthly hope is lost.
At that very moment, Aslan, the great lion, says to Eustace, “you will have to let me undress you.” Eustace says, “I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it. The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt.” Eustace thus displays the courage to trust in God amidst his fears—ceasing to trust in our own strength and relying completely on the divine assistance to free us from our sins and get us off the island of this world so we might attain heaven. Conversion may be painful, yet it is worth the pain. Paul emphasizes this same orientation in Philippians, “one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” (Phil 3:13-14).
Perhaps the best way of living amidst anxieties and pains is to begin by welcoming them as simply an unavoidable part of our lives. We are embodied beings with feelings and emotions that live in the middle of a broken world, our own brokenness, the brokenness of others, the brokenness of countless generations that came before and are likely to come after us. It is not for nothing that the “Hail Holy Queen” prayer speaks of us “mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.”
Yet, just as we might learn to welcome our anxieties and pains, so also might we learn to welcome our resilience and strength. We might try no longer to give into Lewis’s triumvirate of distractions, frustrations, and fears, but instead to be quick to ask for God’s help and so find the strength to do the work of the day.
When we are in the middle of despair from trying to overcome our sins and failings, perhaps, with Eustace, we might admit the bankruptcy of our own efforts, lie down and let Aslan undress us. Perhaps we might receive our Lord’s mercy and so experience the joy of becoming whole again.
When we are in the middle of our unwillingness to do the good we know we ought to do, perhaps, with Susan, we might hear Aslan speak to us, “You have listened to your fears, child.” Perhaps we might come to feel our Lord breathe on us and ask us, “Are you brave again?”
When we are in the middle of the darkness of overwhelming fears and lose our way, perhaps, with Lucy, we might call out, “Aslan, Aslan.” Or, if we are more like the sailors stuck doing the same thing and expecting different results, we might at least turn to trustworthy friends and saints who might help us see the way forward. Perhaps then, with our reason and our imagination, with our heads and our hearts, we finally might hear our Lord say to each one of us, “Courage, Dear Heart.”
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Michael Dauphinais, Ph.D. is Professor and Chair of Theology at Ave Maria University, Ave Maria, Florida. He is an established author, co-authoring Knowing the Love of Christ: An Introduction to the Theology of Thomas Aquinas and Holy People and Holy Land: A Theological Introduction to the Bible with Matthew Levering. He and his wife Nancy have been blessed with twenty-six years of marriage and have three adult sons.