November 23, 2010

“But Of Course!”

Category: Family,Marriage,Theology :: Permalink

In his introduction to a collection of essays presented to Charles Williams, albeit after his unexpected death, C. S. Lewis writes about the pessimistic side of Williams:

He also said that when young people came to us with their troubles and discontents, the worst thing we could do was to tell them that they were not so unhappy as they thought.  Our reply ought rather to begin, “But of course….”  For young people usually are unhappy, and the plain truth is often the greatest relief we can give them.  The world is painful in any case: but it is quite unbearable if everyone gives us the idea that we are meant to be liking it.  Half the trouble is over when that monstrous demand is withdrawn.  What is unforgivable if judged as a hotel may be very tolerable as a reformatory” (Essays Presented to Charles Williams, xii-xiii).

I should add that Lewis goes on to say

But that was only one side of him.  This scepticism and pessimism were the expression of his feelings.  High above them, overarching them like a sky, were the things he believed, and they were wholly optimistic.  They did not negate the feelings; they mocked them (xiii).

But I am interested in particular in the first quotation and I invite your discussion.  On the one hand, it seems to me wrong to think that we are not meant to enjoy life.  I even try to teach my children to like foods that they currently don’t, precisely because I want to increase their enjoyment of their mother’s (and others’) cooking and so enrich their lives.  We don’t want our children moping around, nor do we want to mope around ourselves, and so we try to learn to enjoy the chores and tasks we have to do.

But on the other hand, I also see what Lewis (and behind him Williams) means. Consider marriage.  If we give the impression that marriage is simply something to enjoy, then we are not preparing people well for marriage.  Marriage is often a joy and a pleasure and a delight, but it is also often work. If you focus on your happiness, you’re going to be disappointed.  But if you understand that in every marriage there is going to be a certain amount of drudgery, of chores you’d rather not do, of times when you’re called upon to serve when you’d rather not, of times of unhappiness — and recognizing that might go a long way toward helping couples deal with those times.  In this connection, I refer you to Lewis’s own excellent essay “The Sermon and the Lunch,” which should be required reading for couples and for their pastors.

But on the third hand … do we really want to say that this world is a reformatory and tolerable as such?  That makes it sound as if one day, we’ll be released, when in fact isn’t it the case that our calling is not to wait around and hope to escape to heaven (when the work on us is done) but rather to heavenize the world, to imprint the pattern of heaven on the world, to pray and work so that God’s name is hallowed, His kingdom comes, and His will is done on earth as it is in heaven?  And if that’s the goal, then “reformatory” isn’t really the right view of the world, is it?

Now … discuss amongst yourselves.

Posted by John Barach @ 4:03 pm | Discuss (2)

2 Responses to ““But Of Course!””

  1. Valerie (Kyriosity) Says:

    The quote really resonates with me because I remember my mother saying to me at some point during my quite painful adolescence, “These are the best years of your life!” Wow…you want to push a suicidal kid even farther in the wrong direction, just promise her life will just keep getting worse! Thank God she was wrong.

    The suffering/reformatory analogy would have been useful to me then, I think. “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. … he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” We can’t learn to rejoice in all circumstances if we pretend that there’s only one kind of circumstances — the happy kind. If we acknowledge that “man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward,” that suffering is *normal* in this life, *then* we can learn to rejoice in it. To laugh in the midst of the vanity/vapor. If we weep with those who weep, comforting one another with the comfort with which God has comforted us, then we can get to the rejoicing with those who rejoice.

    I don’t mind calling it a reformatory, because we need reforming and we are being reformed and we are becoming reformers. I don’t mind calling it a reformatory, because reformatories have windows through which we can see the heavenly pattern that we’re to follow in the work of being reformed and reforming.

  2. John Says:

    Thanks, Valerie!

    The quotation resonated with me, too, because I suspect that a lot of people want to give cheap advice along the lines of “Your life is pretty good. You should be happy.” But minimizing the problem doesn’t help us deal with the problem and could create more problems.

    I think it was Walker Percy who pointed out that psychologist and psychiatrists seem to have as their basic presupposition the idea that depression is unnatural. “Let’s get you back to where you ought to be” — whether by counseling, Prozac, or whatever.

    Percy asked, “What if depression is the right response to a certain set of circumstances.” And, given how widespread depression seems to be today, “What if depression is the right response to America today?”

    What we ought to emphasize, Lewis would say (I think), is that while there’s lots to enjoy in life, much of life is hard work and there is a lot of unhappiness and suffering. If you think it’s all going to be easy and happy, then you’re going to have a harder time of it than if you expect there to be hardship.

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