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Isolated, Not Alone

For many high schoolers, the future seems chaotic and uncertain.  It may seem useless to sit and study during a year which feels unprecedented and overwhelming. It is tempting to believe that our present catastrophes are unique, when in fact many great writers have survived disasters—not only survived, but in fact were only able to write the books we now treasure because they had faced the horrors which taught them wisdom, grace, and strength.

Authors from Other Times of Crisis

C.S. Lewis in his sermon, “Learning in War-Time,” reminds us that “life has never been normal.” In fact, many beloved authors wrote during times of uncertainty and upheaval:

  • St. Augustine wrote his Confessions as plagues swept across the known world, wiping out as much as a third of the population.
  • Emily Dickinson wrote her poems during the Civil War and an epidemic that swept repeatedly across the country, claiming the lives of multiple loved ones.
  • C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkein fought in WWI, and many of Lewis’s famous works were written when it was unclear how Britain could withstand Germany’s attacks.
  • In WWII, T. S. Eliot kept watch over the rooftops of London, exposed as bombs rained down on the city.
  • Dostoevsky, who endured years of severe health crises, continued to write even after he was exiled to Siberia.

The Shadow of Something More Important

Lewis reminded his listeners not to “let your nerves and emotions lead you into thinking your present predicament more abnormal than it really is.” There is no doubt he would say the same to us now, in the midst of our own chaos. “Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice,” Lewis says, “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.”

The Clean Sea Breeze of the Centuries

Also in Lewis’s sermon “Learning in War-Time,” which he preached in Oxford in 1939 as England was soon to face the blitz by German bombers, he said, “A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.” Lewis went on to defend learning and studying during the war, at a time when young people might be misled into thinking that only immediate and practical service would be useful.  In fact, he says that reading great books from other time periods can alert us to the blind spots of our age–– in Lewis’s beautiful phrase, to “keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.”

No matter how overwhelmed students feel today, it is the human condition–– and only the human condition–– which we are faced with now. During a few years of peace and comfort, we may have forgotten the uncertainty of human life. Although the current situation feels unprecedented, students can turn to those who have already lived through crises of world-shaking proportions: the great writers of other times. One of the reasons I value teaching in an Honors humanities program is that the students return, year after year, to books written while the world was crumbling, and find hope and guidance there.

These writers invite us to share in what they have learned. We may feel isolated, but we are not alone.

Seeking Guidance Through an Honors Program

Learn more from great writers of the past at Honors College at Azusa Pacific University in beautiful Southern California. In the APU Honors College, whatever your major focus, from Nursing to English, Business to Biology, you also enroll in a great works program that nurtures deep thinkers and articulate communicators with strong moral character. Check it out at apu.edu/honors.

About the Author

Christine Tachick Kern is an Associate Professor in the Honors College at Azusa Pacific University.  She received her Ph.D. in English from the University of Wisconsin.  She and her husband have two children and homeschool their 11-year-old son.  The family loves travel and has lived in Oxford.  Their most recent trip abroad involved the study of the Vatican and extensive gelato research.

The APU Honors College telos—its aim, purpose, end—is to liberally educate the next generation of intellectually-gifted Christian leaders. The curriculum starts with the premise that good leadership requires the cultivation of moral and intellectual virtue—the habits of the heart and of the mind that enable one to determine what ought to be done and how best to do it. Check out an Honors College devoted to helping the next generation of Christian leaders grow in wisdom and virtue at apu.edu/honors.

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