Vocation in a Time of Precedented Uncertainty
If it’s worth doing at any time, it’s worth doing now.
“Coronavirus could force the world into an unprecedented depression.” “Air pollution falls by unprecedented levels in major global cities during coronavirus lockdowns.” “Unprecedented nationwide blood studies seek to track U.S. coronavirus spread.” “Scientists learning about coronavirus at unprecedented speed.” “Coronavirus has sparked an unprecedented level of philanthropy.” “Industry faces unprecedented uncertainty due to coronavirus pandemic.” “Coronavirus is totally unprecedented.” “Coronavirus symptoms include unprecedented use of ‘unprecedented.’”
Okay, I made that last one up, but you get the idea. Even if “unprecedented” is overused, the novel coronavirus, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the containment and mitigation measures put in place to check the spread of the disease have been extraordinarily disruptive, destroying lives, upending livelihoods, and clouding the future with uncertainty.
Among the many casualties of these current risks and future uncertainties is sure-footed conviction about our vocations. Why would we continue to invest time and attention in the same things that captured our imaginations before the pandemic? Where does our work fit into questions about the future of the global economy, the possibility of environmental integrity, the pace of scientific discovery, or the scale of global charitable giving? How can our own sense of calling withstand such massively scaled issues? We may wonder whether our work will be interrupted by forces beyond our control, whether it will matter (if a book is published in a pandemic and Amazon cannot ship it immediately, did it even happen?), and whether it is even potentially unworthy of our time, given the present exigencies.
Not to put too fine a point on it: people are dying. Others are risking their lives. Others are mere days from unemployment lines and food pantries, if they aren’t there already. Those of us who are not medical professionals, public health experts, first responders, policy-makers, macroeconomists, grocers, or, I dare add, statisticians, may sense the diminished immediate consequence of our work and wonder what, exactly, we should be doing right now. Mild symptoms of this vocational malaise include not getting anything done; moderate symptoms include armchair epidemiology and lengthy tweetstorms; more severe symptoms include existential questions about the point—or pointlessness—of our work in the midst of and after the pandemic. The stakes of this unease are especially high at a time the meaning or significance of our lives and work have become gateways into conversations of eternal consequence.
But while the coronavirus may be novel, this angst about our work is not. While a few aspects of this pandemic and our responses to it may be unprecedented, vocational disorientation in the face of uncertainty is unequivocally precedented. It doesn’t take a pandemic to prompt anxiety about our calling. From individual illness and family turmoil to economic upheaval, natural disasters, and violent conflict, any number of changes beyond our control may prompt us to ask whether our callings, the entire tapestry of relationships and responsibilities in which we normally invest, are still worthy of our attention and time.
Luckily, we are also not the first people to respond to these questions.
In each of the past two years, I’ve had the privilege of reading one such response—C.S. Lewis’s essay “Learning in War-Time”—together with first-year students in the Aequitas Program in Urban Leadership at Wheaton College. Every year, my students write a paper in which they have to adapt Lewis’s logic to their own decisions to engage in four years of liberal arts education while the important and urgent challenges they feel called to engage are already “out there,” and seem to demand our students’ immediate attention and action. The lesson they’re meant to learn is that their liberal arts education is worth their investment, especially as the landscape around them shifts and even as issues that attracted them to the program—issues like environmental justice and sustainability, affordable housing, economic vitality, education, and public health—remain pressing or grow more so.
I’ve been learning from Lewis alongside my students. And I’ve been thinking about the lessons his essay has about the worthiness, even during this pandemic, of the things that normally get our attention and investment.
For those who haven’t read “Learning in War-Time” (it can be found in the collection of essays sold under the title The Weight of Glory): It’s a 1939 address delivered to students as Europe descended further into what would become World War II. Faced with the uncertainty and disruption of the emerging war, Lewis’s students were questioning their own calling to invest in learning, the transformative pursuit of truth and beauty:
What is the use of beginning a task which we have so little chance of finishing? Or, even if we ourselves should happen not to be interrupted by death or military service, why should we—indeed, how can we—continue to take an interest in these placid [scholarly] occupations when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?
Lewis’s students worried that their work might be interrupted, might not be useful, and might be unimportant. In other words, “People are dying, some are risking their lives, others are suffering other misfortunes associated with the war, and we may soon be among them. How, exactly, is my calling as a student still useful or worthwhile?”
I have always admired the way in which Lewis responds to these questions by reframing them first. He starts his answer by saying that the questions aren’t quite right. They’re not quite big enough, not quite perennial enough, not eternally consequential enough. He wants his students to know that their anxieties are, in fact, precedented, and so he redirects them, reframing their novel crisis and particular questions in the context of enduring crises and timeless questions. He says we need to expand the question from, How can learning be important now? to, How could learning be important ever? He explains:
It seems to me that we shall not be able to answer these questions until we have put them by the side of certain other questions which every Christian ought to have asked himself in peacetime. . . . The moment we do so we can see that every Christian who comes to a university must at all times face a question compared with which the questions raised by the war are relatively unimportant. He must ask himself how it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to heaven or to hell, to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology.
In a world constantly, even in peacetime, at risk of spiritual rebellion and eternal damnation, Lewis encouraged his students to see the immediate crisis as a smaller issue eclipsed by questions of enduring consequence.
Here Lewis gets about as close as any of us ever does to Jesus’s constant reframing of his interlocutors’ questions. For example, when the Pharisees asked Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” Jesus corrected them with a much more far-reaching question: “Whose likeness and inscription [is on the coin]?” and his own response, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.” Both the question and the answer put the presenting issues in broader perspective, expanding horizons and raising stakes, and Lewis does likewise, framing a question about human behaviour as a question about human nature and putting the immediate in “the shadow of something infinitely more important”:
The war creates no absolutely new situation; it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil . . . turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of crises, alarms, difficulties, emergencies. Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never comes. . . . This is not panache, it is our nature.
Lewis goes on to explain to his students that if learning is a worthy endeavour during less novel crises, alarms, difficulties, and emergencies, then it is a worthy endeavour during the war, their novel crisis. But we struggle, Lewis notes, with three challenges during novel crises—challenges that may seem very familiar to our mid-pandemic experience, and to which Lewis has responses:
- “Excitement,” or the tendency to think and feel about the novel crisis rather than about our usual work, may allow the novel crisis to overtake our usual work. For Lewis’s students, this may have looked like spending all their time thinking about the war, at the expense of their studies. For us, it may look like spending all of our time thinking about the pandemic when we have other relationships and responsibilities that still need tending. Our response should not be to focus on the new challenge, but to focus on our callings in the midst of the new challenge. While we should remember that some moments are so pressure-filled that “only superhuman self-control” is up to the task, there are always distractions and “favourable conditions never come,” so we should do our best to keep at our work in the midst of distraction.
- “Frustration,” or the feeling that we will not have time to finish or that our work may eventually be interrupted or hindered by the novel situation, may overcome us. Lewis’s students may have been overwhelmed with the sense that their investment in any given day’s or week’s work would not be matched by the fulfillment of finishing their course of study. We may wonder why we would invest in our relationships and responsibilities today, when those responsibilities may change tomorrow or when the project may, for one reason or another, never be finished. Lewis’s reminder: At no point are we trying to finish all of our work, but only that work which is immediately before us—“it is only our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for”—and that work remains worthy regardless of whether it will eventually play its originally intended role in a bigger project, initiative, scheme, or legacy.
- “Fear,” or the dread of pain and death, may overwhelm us. Lewis’s young students with big aspirations faced the prospect of death, pain, and loss at home—German bombings began the next year—or on the battlefield. We face it as we wonder about unemployment, illness, hospitalization, or death. To both, Lewis would suggest the that the risk of pain and death is with us always, and it is good to be reminded of the great distance between the new creation and “the sort of universe in which we have all along been living.” Though both the everyday possibility of pain and death and our fervent hope in the age to come may shape our investments of time and attention, neither disqualifies our callings under normal circumstances, and neither disqualifies our callings now.
None of this is to say that all worthy endeavours are just as straightforward or easy in wartime, or in the pandemic, as they usually are; we should probably expect that most endeavours will be more complicated and difficult under our present circumstances. None of it is to say that we should focus on productivity; the pandemic is no time for preoccupations about optimizing our quantified selves. None of it is to say that everything is normal and we should try to make things “business as usual”; even tending to our usual relationships and responsibilities may require adjusting everything from policies and practices to expectations.
Even if the pandemic has distracted our attention, diminished our effectiveness, disrupted our rhythms, or dealt us pain, worthy things that captured our attention, time, and investment before are not suddenly unworthy because of the pandemic and the uncertainty it brings.
Certainly, none of it is to say that only learning matters. Actually, it’s quite obvious that Lewis means that anything that is truly worth our time and attention during less novel crises, alarms, difficulties, and emergencies is worth our time and attention during novel ones, coronavirus included. Even if our work is harder in many ways, even if the pandemic has distracted our attention, diminished our effectiveness, disrupted our rhythms, or dealt us pain, worthy things that captured our attention, time, and investment before are not suddenly unworthy because of the pandemic and the uncertainty it brings. Was it valuable, before the pandemic, to compose music, teach math, or learn Spanish? Then it is still valuable during the pandemic. Was it a worthy endeavour, in 2019, to build homes, tend gardens, and share meals? Then it is a worthy endeavour in 2020. Was it commendable for any generation to birth new enterprises and steward older institutions? Then it is commendable for this one. Was it ever worthwhile to preach the gospel, to make disciples, to love neighbours, strangers, and enemies? Then it is worthwhile now. As Lewis puts it, if we can think it worthy “for some souls, and at some times . . . we can think so still.” In other words, it’s precedented.