At 5.30 pm on 22 November 1963, C.S. Lewis – author of The Chronicles of Narnia – collapsed in his Oxford home and died after kidney failure. Fifty-five minutes later, across the Atlantic, US President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in front of the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas. Later that day, in Los Angeles, philosopher Aldous Huxley succumbed to laryngeal cancer with his wife by his side.
Lewis, the literary metaphysician. JFK, the pragmatic politician. Huxley, the pleasure-seeking pantheist. United by the date of their deaths, they could not have seen life more differently.
This week marks the 60th anniversary of that day.
1963 was marked by political upheaval, cultural change and an explosion of technology. The Cold War was being fought through its most damaging proxy war in Vietnam. The Western middle class was divided by the sexual and hippie revolutions. And millions of homes had welcomed their first television set.
‘The more things change, the more they stay the same,’ said French journalist J.B. Karr.
Sixty years later, inflation is pretty much the same as it was then. Threats to the global order now play out in the South China Sea, Ukraine and the Middle East. Culture wars polarise our public square. And we grapple with the benefits and challenges of the technology – now complete with smartphones, on-demand entertainment and artificial intelligence.
JFK would urge us to push forward – to use technology to cool our overheating planet, calm our inflated economies, broker peace between warring power blocs and focus on health, education and employment outcomes. Utopia through techno-optimism. We’re the ones we’ve been waiting for. Ask what you can do for your country.
Huxley would encourage escape from the drudgery of the consumer capitalism he foresaw. He would proclaim his own vindication, pointing to the dehumanising dangers of smartphones, social media and bloated mortgages. Detach. Meditate. Escape. Forget about interest rates and get back to pleasure and experience.
C.S. Lewis articulated a grittier diagnosis of the human condition – one that confronted pain and suffering. Even our best tech-inspired efforts don’t always work. And distraction only offers temporary respite. Lewis would have told us that cold technocracy dehumanises and detached escapism deludes. Suffering demands more than a hopeful pathway to its mitigation or an entertaining distraction from its ubiquity.
Both Huxley and Kennedy were no strangers to the suffering Lewis addressed. JFK wrestled with chronic illness, severe pain and a broken marriage ravaged by his own infidelity. Huxley experienced blindness, the death of his first wife and finally, cancer. He famously requested (and was given) LSD in his final hours. Sensory escape was his best response to suffering.
In contrast to Huxley, the escapist, and Kennedy, the optimist, Lewis wrote about suffering as a reality to live with, not a problem to be solved. In his books, The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed, he declares that attempting to exclude or escape suffering is a wrongheaded distraction from life. He relied not on eliminating suffering, but – through his faith – embracing a source of strength and hope to endure it. Suffering can broaden horizons, deepen character and enrich relationships. But even when it doesn’t, there is hope in believing that, ultimately, it won’t win. For Lewis, faith was not a formula to fix things but a posture of mind through which to navigate a broken world.
‘I believe in Christianity not because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.' C.S Lewis
Sixty years on from that fateful day in November 1963, the human need for hope amidst suffering still seems the central challenge of the modern project. Last month, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said our world is becoming unhinged. Maybe there’s more to it. The world is – as ever – broken and imperfect. Perhaps it’s our efforts to somehow rescue ourselves from the brokenness that has us divided and despairing. As we look back on the lives and work of Kennedy, Huxley and Lewis, we are reminded that our desire for solutions and escape might benefit from some additional longings to which we pay little attention in our headlines – faith and hope in the midst of our struggles.