Only Under Torture
When Joshua requested submissions for Lewis Week, I was stumped: not because I had no ideas to build upon, but because I had too many. I grew up on C.S. Lewis. Should I write about Narnia? The satirical brilliance of The Screwtape Letters? The dizzying beauty of Till We Have Faces? My quibbles with The Great Divorce?
Then I remembered A Grief Observed.
Perhaps it is not his finest work – I reserve that position for The Abolition of Man – but it is probably his most personal, certainly his most moving, and the one dearest to my heart. Prior to the end of last year, it was one of the few Lewis books I hadn't read, though I had been intending to read it for a very long time. My tardiness was for the best. I picked it up a few weeks after life as I knew it went to hell. A title which had been of tangential interest to me suddenly seemed the most relevant thing in the world. I believe I read it through in a single sitting, revisiting it in the days that followed.
I don't pretend that my loss was as great the one Lewis experienced, but his writing struck a chord. There was an ache in it that I recognized. His comparison of grief to fear, to drunkenness, to a concussion, was not cold abstraction to me; I was living it. I knew what he meant by “the laziness of grief”. I'd felt the apathy that both craves and loathes distraction. I was familiar with the way unexpected jabs of “red-hot memory” made commonsense vanish “like an ant in the mouth of a furnace.”
And grief still feels like fear. Perhaps, more strictly, like suspense. Or like waiting; just hanging about waiting for something to happen. It gives life a permanently provisional feeling. It doesn’t seem worth starting anything. I can’t settle down. I yawn, fidget, I smoke too much. Up till this I always had too little time. Now there is nothing but time. Almost pure time, empty successiveness...
[I]n grief nothing ‘stays put.’ One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral?
But if a spiral, am I going up or down it?
How often – will it be for always? – how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, ‘I never realized my loss till this moment’? The same leg is cut off time after time.
Here was empathy; here was commiseration; here was a gentle rebuke to the narcissistic tendency to think my pain was somehow unique or past comprehension. To read Lewis on grief is to descend from the ivory tower to the battlefield and walk among the wounded and the dying. And as I sit here on Thanksgiving Day, preparing for the eventual landslide of food, laughter, and gratitude at the dinner table, I'm thankful for this man who wrote of grief, not as he imagined it, but as he knew it to be.
Even more, I'm thankful he didn't stop there. Near the end of the book he writes, “I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process.” And for the children of God, it is a process that inexorably gives way to hope, and even to gratitude. Our suffering is never pointless, and through his own, Lewis is obliged to come to terms with the stakes of the game:
Feelings, and feelings, and feelings. Let me try thinking instead. From the rational point of view, what new factor has H.’s death introduced into the problem of the universe? What grounds has it given me for doubting all that I believe? I knew already that these things, and worse, happened daily. I would have said that I had taken them into account. I had been warned – I had warned myself – not to reckon on worldly happiness. We were even promised sufferings. They were part of the programme. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accepted it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not in imagination. Yes; but should it, for a sane man, make quite such a difference as this? No. And it wouldn’t for a man whose faith had been real faith and whose concern for other people’s sorrows had been real concern. The case is too plain. If my house has collapsed at one blow, that is because it was a house of cards. The faith which ‘took these things into account’ was not faith but imagination. The taking them into account was not real sympathy. If I had really cared, as I thought I did, about the sorrows of the world, I should not have been so overwhelmed when my own sorrow came. It has been an imaginary faith playing with innocuous counters labelled ‘Illness,’ ‘Pain,’ ‘Death,’ and ‘Loneliness.’ I thought I trusted the rope until it mattered to me whether it would bear me. Now it matters, and I find I didn’t.
Bridge-players tell me that there must be some money on the game ‘or else people won’t take it seriously.’ Apparently it’s like that. Your bid – for God or no God, for a good God or the Cosmic Sadist, for eternal life or nonentity – will not be serious if nothing much is staked on it. And you will never discover how serious it was until the stakes are raised horribly high, until you find that you are playing not for counters or for sixpences but for every penny you have in the world. Nothing less will shake a man – or at any rate a man like me – out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only torture will bring out the truth. Only under torture does he discover it himself.
Perhaps only under torture do the words of Job assume the weight and heat of the sun: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.” (Job 19:25-27)
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