Life Has Never Been Normal

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In 1939, when Oxford students felt the urge to quit their studies and enlist, C.S. Lewis delivered a stirring address titled “Learning in War-Time.” Here is its central argument: 

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, like the nineteenth century, turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of cries, alarms, difficulties, emergencies.

He goes on to say that the larger war effort involves the entire culture functioning at full strength. Countries win wars not merely by brute strength but by faith and intelligence. So clergy and academics serve in their way, just as civil servants tending the national infrastructure serve in theirs. And such service ultimately reaches the same fate:

There is no question of death or life for any of us; only a question of this death or of that—of a machine gun bullet now or a cancer forty years later. What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent; 100 percent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased. It puts several deaths earlier; but I hardly suppose that that is what we fear. Certainly when the moment comes, it will make little difference how many years we have behind us. […] Yet war does do something to death. It forces us to remember it. The only reason why the cancer at sixty or the paralysis at seventy-five do not bother us is that we forget them. War makes death real to us: and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right.

So while there is “no absolutely new situation”—not even in death— war, as any mortal crisis, stimulates in us a new sense of where we’re all headed. And that sense is far more important than the immediate call to enlist, because it raises the natural question: After death, then what? Whether we’re consigned to graves unmarked or marked makes no difference. Even the memory of a just national cause fades in light of eternity. Go on about your studies, Lewis encourages the young Oxford students, even if it feels as though you’re fiddling while Rome burns. There are larger issues at stake, he says: “The true tragedy of Nero must be not that he fiddles while the city is on fire but that he fiddles on the brink of hell.”

War “aggravates the permanent human situation” so that we’re faced with the question: What will become of us?

Following Lewis’s logic, Memorial Day, a holiday (holy day) set aside to honor the men and women who have given their lives to protect American freedom, would seem to be best spent in spiritual contemplation rather than speeches and ceremony. It ought to be devoted to the sort of true grieving that results in a new understanding not only of our country’s situation, but also of the fate of humanity.

Yet do we know how to truly grieve or contemplate? The human race loves to chronicle its tragedies, losses, catastrophes, its wars and its deaths. We eulogize, elegize, write obits and epitaphs; we publicly lament. We use every form of media, even architecture, to memorialize the dead. We’ve done it from the beginning of recorded history. To an outsider it might even seem as though we’re obsessed with death.

But an outside view might not detect the difference between public words of remembrance and private expressions of true sorrow. Official words are inscribed, sometimes literally set in stone. Sorrow spills out without much thought—or with whatever thought is possible during grief. The difference can be defined in terms of audience. Official words are presented for the benefit of the public, to be published or presented at ceremonial occasions. They may contain the pain of loss, but they hold it steadily, quieting it, regarding it in a transcendent context. Sorrow staggers, asking “why?” and has little sense of any public, because an overwhelming sense of hopelessness has taken its place. In real grief, existence feels meaningless, and the audience for such cries might as well be a tree.

Those who have experienced such grief know how it feels. It feels total—life-surrounding. It also feels as if there is no way out.

The best modern expression of true grief isn’t a patriotic poem. It’s Emily Dickinson’s #341:

After great pain, a formal feeling comes—

The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs—

The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,

And Yesterday, or Centuries before?


The Feet, mechanical, go round—

Of Ground, or Air, or Ought—

A Wooden way

Regardless grown,

A Quartz contentment, like a stone—


This is the Hour of Lead—

Remembered, if outlived,

As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow—

First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—

In this poem, Dickinson beautifully dovetails human grief with what she imagines to be the experience of death by freezing. Here, far more than in “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” the reader is able to connect with the emotional realities surrounding the death of a soldier. It may take some effort, because, especially on Memorial Day, we’re accustomed to distancing ourselves from the actual deaths of soldiers. We see the deaths as noble self-sacrifice. By focusing on glorification of our land and its freedoms, we idealize military death in a way that prevents sympathizing with families of the fallen. We prevent ourselves from seeing death—and war—for what it truly is: a stark reminder of the “permanent human situation” in which we must all eventually participate.

And when we prevent ourselves this way, when we distract ourselves with patriotic slogans, we cauterize a wound which should still be bleeding. And we spend our Memorial Day in exactly the wrong way: picnicking or shopping.

Emily Dickinson’s poem isn’t about war in any particular way. Pair it with Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum est,” in which he describes soldiers marching in World War I:

Many had lost their boots

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind; 

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling, 

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time; 

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling, 

And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime. . . 

Consistent with Lewis’s claim that “War makes death real to us,” Owen allows that “someone” to become the poem’s central focus.

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. 

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, 

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. 

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in, 

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, 

His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin; 

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, 

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues […]

If this is too heinous and graphic for Memorial Day reading, Owen’s conclusion might be even more objectionable, at least to patriotic Americans:

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory, 

The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est

Pro patria mori.

The final Latin dictum, a line from one of Horace’s odes, exhorts young men to bravery in war. It can be roughly translated as, “It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.” That Owen calls this not only a lie but “the old lie” implies that it’s been used for centuries to convince young men to enlist—when in fact they have no idea of the grim horror that awaits them.

But “life has never been normal,” argues Lewis, and it’s true. We are all, in our daily lives, faced with this strange task of living out our biographies from beginning to end. We continue to grow up, go to school, work, explore, design, develop and build our world. That we do so within the finite boundaries of our own birth and death means we must find some transcendent purpose for all this activity.

Not to say that embracing finiteness is easy. No living person has a clear sense of total physical failure until it happens, and by then it’s too late to recount. Only the survivors can lament. So our memorials remain official, inscribed, even sometimes celebrative.

The difficult balancing act for Memorial Day is to celebrate the lives and service of those who have died protecting our freedom while also doing our best to face the real horror of war, which is also the fundamental problem of human life. Somehow we have to learn to view war as necessary but horrible; our friends and family who have died in it as courageous but also dead; and the real war as something much larger in which we all play a part.

Somehow we have to balance official, thankful remembrance with an always fresh, always sober awareness of our own mortality.

- Aaron Belz lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina and is the author of three poetry collections: The Bird Hoverer (2007), Lovely, Raspberry (2010), and Glitter Bomb (2014). Follow him on Twitter at @aaronbelz.