I recently saw, on a “thoughtfulness and positivity” type of Facebook page, a quotation attributed to C. S. Lewis: “Do not let your happiness depend on something you may lose.” It had a gazillion “likes.” My first thought was how remarkably unhelpful such advice was; my second was that there was no way C. S. Lewis actually wrote that. In fact, he did not.
Well, he did, but only to craft a philosophical position disagreeing with it completely. He actually went further than disagreeing with it; he said that is an impossibility. Much like my gleeful hatred of typos, seeing quotations, and in this case, really meaningful quotations, taken out of context causes me angst. This stuff is important! It’s C. S. Lewis, for Pete’s sake. But really, it is important, and I’ll try to explain why.
Lewis was discussing St. Augustine, and Augustine’s devastation at the death of his friend Nebridius. In response to this suffering, Augustine comes to the conclusion that such pain is the result of loving anything but God. Hence the quotation: “Do not let your happiness depend on something you may lose. If love is to be a blessing, not a misery, it must be for the only Beloved who will never pass away” (C. S. Lewis, “The Four Loves,” p. 110).
But here is Lewis’s initial response to this way of thinking: “Of course this is excellent sense. Do not put your goods in a leaky vessel. Don’t spend too much on a house you may be turned out of. And there is no man alive who responds more naturally than I to such canny maxims. I am a safety-first creature. Of all arguments against love, none makes so strong an appeal to my nature as ‘Careful! This might lead you to suffering.’”
TL;DR He does not actually believe this.
One of the few moments of uncut childhood anguish I can recall my kids experiencing was when one of our cats died. My son Noah was around 9 years old, and I don’t remember him caring about the cat that much. But when I told him that she’d died, he was overcome with a kind of pure, crystalized grief. It was a palpable force. With his sweet face distorted, he cried, “But I loved her!” It wasn’t about the cat. It was one of his first undiluted realizations that you will lose what you love; that your love costs. That it is simply no protection against…anything, really. It was heart-rending.
In the discussion of Augustine, Lewis reminds us that, as Christians, “We follow One who wept over Jerusalem and at the grave of Lazarus…There is no escape along the lines St. Augustine suggests. Nor along any other lines. There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken.”
And then this: “If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell. We shall draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to him; throwing away all defensive armour. If our hearts need to be broken, and if He chooses this as the way in which they should break, so be it” C. S. Lewis, “The Four Loves,” pps. 110-112).
This last line is such a surrender: “So be it.” The reason, or at least one of the reasons that it’s important to get things like this thought process from Lewis right, that we have to see beyond what throw-away quotation someone posts for “likes,” is because people like C.S. Lewis teach us how to live. Their hard-won wisdom is shared so that we can have some chance of managing being human. This matters.
So does this, an excerpt from Mary Oliver’s “In Blackwater Woods:”
She is teaching us how to be human. How lucky we are to be offered such generous help with what, much of the time, can feel breathtakingly difficult. How very lucky.
I’ve been thinking of this post all day, feeling for 9 year old Noah and remember losing a precious cat when I was about his age. It was after my beloved grandmother died when I had just turned 19 that I started thinking about the connection between loving someone deeply and the pain of loss. Thank you for writing such a thoughtful piece.