The Journal Gazette
Monday, March 23, 2020 1:00 am


A virus need not cow the human mind - or spirit

Ed Breen

Here's a thought: There is not a one of us living today who has come through a time and event that truly changed the way we live our daily lives.

Not the Civil War, certainly. And it changed forever the lives of every American. Not the flu epidemic of 1918, about which we are hearing so much these days; it snuffed out the lives of 675,000 men, women and children. Not World War II, which reshaped the world and the life of every American. Oh, some were youngsters and recall ration books and Mom going to work in the factory, but by and large that generation – the “greatest generation” – has passed.

You might suggest the trauma of 9/11, but as someone said the other day, “that day was terrible, but on 9/12 we all went to dinner.” It didn't profoundly change the landscape of daily life.

And what of right now, of last week and this week? We don't know yet, do we? And we shall not for weeks and maybe months. But in a few short days every one of our lives has been disrupted. Money lost. Schools closed. Entertainments denied. Anxiety runs rampant. We all fear the unknown. Perhaps this is our introduction to an uncertain world. Perhaps not. We just don't know.

One thing that has changed since previous cataclysms: Social media has invaded our lives, even – perhaps most – in times of isolation and aloneness. So it seemed over the weekend. As we adjusted to social separation, to not being a part of the crowd, many bared their anxious souls on Facebook and other electronic neighborhoods and gathering places.

And interestingly, a snippet of wisdom – a mere 315 words – from 1948 zipped across cyberspace with all the urgency of breaking news. A small piece written by the long-dead Irish-English theologian and storyteller, C.S. Lewis. Clive Staples Lewis, a gently stuffy man, really, who gave us such great works as “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “The Screwtape Letters,” a great book titled simply “Mere Christianity” and so many more. The great tale of his life and loves was made into a movie, “Shadowlands,” starring Anthony Hopkins as Mr. Lewis.

Not incidentally, he died at age 64 on Nov. 22, 1963, a day on which his death and that of another writer, Aldous Huxley, were overshadowed by the assassination of President Kennedy.

Lewis may sound familiar to those of us here in Grant County because one of the great libraries and depositories of his work and life is housed in Zondervan Library at Taylor University in Upland. It is the third-largest Lewis collection in the world and has been there since 1996, drawing students and admirers from around the world. It plays host to an annual gathering of Lewis scholars in the spring, an event that, ironically, might be in jeopardy this year because so much is.

Anyway, back in 1948, when the dread of the atomic bomb was fresh in mind, C.S. Lewis wrote an essay on how we ought to consider that which is beyond our control.

The atomic bomb then, the coronavirus today.

In this little homily, please simply think of today's fears when he addresses those of yesterday. He seems to make so much sense.

“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 16th 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.”

Thank you, Mr. Lewis. We shall prevail.

Ed Breen is the retired assistant managing editor for photos/graphics at The Journal Gazette. He wrote this as a commentary for WBAT-AM in Marion.

Sign up for our Opinion newsletter

Sent daily

Share this article