Taking the lives of close to 70 million men, women, and children, tearing countries apart, and sucking the world into turmoil for 6 brutal years, the second world war is a checkpoint in 20th century world history that will never be forgotten. It was during this war that C.S. Lewis gave his speech titled “Learning in Wartime” in which he discussed the place of scholarly learning, particularly in the context of wartime. Towards the end of the talk, Lewis lists the three enemies that face the scholar which, being a scholar of sorts myself, I found very insightful and helpful. They are excitement, frustration, and fear.
Although Lewis gave his speech within the context of the second world war, I think that his warnings concerning excitement are just as valid for us today as they were for the young men listening 70 odd years ago. Speaking to the excitement/distraction that the war caused, Lewis says, “The best defence is a recognition that in this, as in everything else, the war has not really raised up a new enemy but only aggravated an old one […] 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” (60). I have not lived through any wars that distracted me to the extent that WW2 distracted the populace of Europe, but there are plenty of things that go on in my life, and everyone’s lives, that keep us constantly busy and stressed out. Lewis simply states that the only people who have (and I would say this is true for all human history) achieved anything great “are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable” (60). People put their time where their values are.
The second enemy that Lewis describes is frustration. He uses this word mainly to refer to the feeling that there just isn’t enough time to finish the work that we have begun. Rather than bemoaning our lack of time, or regretting that projects may not be finished, Lewis states that “A more Christian attitude, which can be attained at any age, is that of leaving futurity in God’s hands […] Never, in peace or war, commit your virtue or your happiness to the future. 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’”(61). I know that this is one area where I really struggle, often letting faithful daily service fall to the wayside as I worry about the future, and I find Lewis’ reminder to use our gifts and abilities day by day ‘as to the Lord’ very helpful.
The last enemy is fear -particularly the fear of death. Lewis says, “We think of the streets of Warsaw and contrast the deaths there suffered with an abstraction called Life. But there is no question of death or life for any of us, only a question of this death or of that -of a machine gun bullet now or a cancer forty years later”(61). While I at first thought that fear might not be as applicable today as it was during Lewis’s given the context of the speech. However, I then remembered the nursing homes where many elderly people are sent, and the ‘painting over’ of abortion as “not really killing people,” and realized that death is just as present, if not more so, in American culture than it was 70 years ago, and people are afraid because they wouldn’t be trying to hide and forget it otherwise. Lewis rightly points out that war does not really change the nature of death, we are ALL going to die, the attrition rate is one hundred percent, and it cannot go any higher. That being said, war places death in a place where we cannot ignore it, and that is one of the things that makes it so fearful. Lewis says, “War makes death real to us, and that would have been regarded as one of its blessing by most of the great Christians of the past”(62). We might can ignore an unwanted elderly person in the nursing home, or a baby still unborn, but we cannot ignore the violence that war brings. Fear often paralyzes people, but we cannot let fear paralyze us or our work.
The three enemies that Lewis mentions are only a small fraction of the treasure present in the whole speech, but I found Lewis’ warning against excitement, frustration, and fear to be particularly applicable. So, in the knowledge of what Lewis has said, may we all go forth better equipped to do the work which our Heavenly Father has prepared for us, and may we do it ‘as unto the Lord.’
Lewis, C. S. The Weight of Glory. New York: Harper Collins, 2001. Print.