President Trump last week referred to himself as a “wartime president.” Indeed, a feeling like the seriousness of war hangs thickly in the air. We have the choice, though, to determine to rise up under these present circumstances, not simply to survive in these days, but to thrive.
We’ve all watched in astonishment the dizzying speed with which life in America has been canceled over the last week. People are feeling anger, fear, despondency, and increasing apathy in response.
Thucydides described a devastating plague in 5th century Athens that similarly infected people with an overpowering moral apathy. “Men now did just as they pleased,” he wrote, “cooly venturing on what they had formerly done only in a corner… Perseverance in what men called honor was popular with none… Fear of gods or law of man there was none to restrain them.”
We’re not quite there yet, thankfully. But still, while under quarantine from COVID-19, the temptation will be strong to turn to some sort of immediate comfort or numbing distraction.
In Italy, a giant pornography website gave away free subscriptions to Italians in areas affected by the virus. In California, Governor Gavin Newsom declared marijuana dispensaries “essential” and therefore exempt from the general lock-down order. People must have some way to kill time, right?
These new circumstances raise the all-important question to our attention: how should we then live?
Learning in Wartime
I was feeling dispirited the other evening and wanted to distract myself with a few episodes of a TV show. My wife reminded me, however, that we had decided to give up TV for Lent and to spend that time instead doing evening prayer.
I started to protest, arguing that circumstances had changed, that it was now unreasonable not to resort to such vital pleasures. She wisely suggested that, given the gravity of these circumstances, our sacrifice was even more important now than before the virus upended our lives. In vain, I searched my mind for a counterargument; she had me in checkmate.
As I begrudgingly acquiesced to her better reasoning, an essay of C. S. Lewis came to mind called “Learning in War-Time.” It was a sermon Lewis gave at a church in Oxford in that direst of years during World War II, 1939.
It’s easy to imagine how absurd it must have seemed to British students at that time to study philosophy and literature in the face of the advance of the Nazi war machine. Debates over the meaning of themes in Shakespearean plays don’t seem very important in such times.
Lewis acknowledged the temptation to think that all of life must revolve around the war. He likened this temptation to that of the overly enthusiastic religious person who assumes that, because the soul is of greater importance than the body, one should do nothing but evangelism.
In truth, though, as Lewis wrote, “Neither conversion nor enlistment in the army is really going to obliterate our human life.” “You are not, in fact, going to read nothing,” he continued, “either in the Church or in the line: if you don’t read good books, you will read bad ones . . . If you reject aesthetic satisfactions, you will fall into sensual satisfactions.”
Human life, in other words, inescapably includes choices, every day, and there are no neutral choices: every choice contributes to a habit and a character, for good or for ill. During times of difficulty, our choices are all the more important since difficulty is a crucible: it tests us and shows us who we really are. Suddenly, Shakespeare’s beautiful descriptions of the immense consequence of human choice seem especially relevant.
Living Well in Plague Time
Lewis noted three particular “enemies” that make learning in war-time difficult: excitement, frustration, and fear. Likewise, these are three things that make living well in plague-time difficult.
There is a morbid excitement over how many new cases of the virus are confirmed or how many new deaths are reported. There is a despondent frustration regarding what recent event has been canceled and what new restriction is in place. There is an enervating fear of what may happen to the economy and our health.
All of these may lead one to become fixated on the news or social media and apathetic about doing anything productive, healthy, or compassionate. There are more temptations now than normally to live poorly. Practicing moderation in regard to pleasures and pains and steeling ourselves in the face of potential pain—fear—feels less appealing than binge-watching Netflix, eating junk food, drinking copious amounts of alcohol, and caring only that our own bodies avoid the sickness.
The irony is that there is more opportunity now than normally to live well because we will likely have more time on our hands and more occasions to help our families, friends, and neighbors.
Benjamin Franklin once observed, “The things which hurt, instruct.” These times of plague and financial depression are definitely going to hurt. We have the chance now to let them instruct us in the art of living well and, consequently, of self-government, but we must rise to the occasion to meet it, not sit down idly in apathy to endure it.
Lewis wrote: “The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavourable.” Likewise, with us now, we must improve ourselves: we must exercise more, not less; eat healthier, not worse; read good books and watch good films, not pornography; we must pray more; we must be better neighbors if we would vindicate our claim to be a free people, capable of self-government.
Plague-time is the worst time to become worse versions of ourselves.