It’s no secret that we live in disillusioning times. We are raising a generation with messages like “you can do anything,” and “you are special.” At the same time we are experiencing long-term unemployment and underemployment. Anyone who is seeking a “dream job”—writer, artist, CEO, non-profit manager, or pure science researcher—is facing what seems like sheer impossibilities. Even teachers, that long standby, are finding it difficult to get full-time work doing what they love.
The result is that this after-school special generation is struggling with vocational identity. They are entering college and university programs without a clear sense of why they are there. They are entering career paths that offer potentials for employment, without knowing for sure that there is a skill match. And those that were hoping to spend their lives leading, teaching, dancing, or changing the world find themselves with a shovel or calculator or control board switch in their hands instead (even if those things could change the world).
What we have, then, is a hypercompetitive work world where so many are settling for second best and where employers and educators have a temptation to reduce young people to the sum of their iPhone apps.
It is a prime setting for disappointment.
The miracle of it is that although GenX have shown signs of despair, except for a rise in mental illness, the first half of Generation Y seems insistent on being hopeful.
What happens, though, when on top of all the challenges in our world, you royally mess things up? What happens when you miss the audition or fail the course or wipe the hard drive clean just before the presentation? What happens when you’ve put all your hopes and dreams in a particular direction and they all fall to pieces?
What do you do when everything seems in ruins?
This happened to Lawrence Harwood, the son of C.S. Lewis’ good friends Daphne and Cecil Harwood. Lawrence went up to Christ Church, Oxford, but failed the preliminary exams that would allow him to do an honours degree. He was absolutely crushed.
Another Inkling, Owen Barfield, who over the years became a kind of mentor to Lawrence, mentioned the failure to Lewis. As the boy’s godfather, Lewis took it upon himself to write to Lawrence. They had written letters back and forth through the years—mostly funny and whimsical notes that you can find in C.S. Lewis: Letters to Children. It was time, Lewis decided, to get serious and offer Lawrence some adult advice.
C.S. Lewis’ experience, despite his academic brilliance, had not been far from Lawrence’s. He failed the math portion of “Responsions”—the general aptitude test required for entrance into Oxford. It was 20 years from his first publication to his first successful book. And even as he writes this letter, despite literary and critical success, he is still slogging away without a position as a professor (much like an adjunct professor today, but with better pay and campus supports).
There were many points in Lewis’ life when he had given up his dreams for dead.
What follows is a rather remarkable letter. It is firm, yet not callous. Lewis is poignant in the advice he gives. If you are able to translate Lawrence’s frustrations and failures to your own, you may find that Lewis offers essential advice to those of us stuck in that period where that dream job, that recording contract, that book deal, or that long-sought for child is so far away.
In any case, I found this note encouraging. It doesn’t take away the hard times now, but I hope it puts it in perspective for you as it does for me.
Aug 2nd 55
My dear Lawrence–
I was sorry to hear from Owen Barfield that you have taken a nasty knock over History Prelim [exams]. Sorry, because I know it can’t be much fun for you: not because I think the thing is necessarily a major disaster. We are now so used to the examination system that we hardly remember how very recent it is and how hotly it was opposed by some quite sincere people. Trollope (no fool) was utterly sceptical about its value: and I myself, tho’ a don, sometimes wonder how many of the useful, or even the great, men of the past wd. have survived it. It doesn’t test all qualities by any means: not even all qualities needed in an academic life. And anyway, what a small part of life that is. And if you are not suited for that, it is well to have been pushed forcibly out of it at an earlier rather than a later stage. It is much worse to waste three or more years getting a Fourth or a Pass. You can now cut your losses and start on something else.
At the moment, I can well imagine, everything seems in ruins. That is an illusion. The world is full of capable and useful people who began life by ploughing in exams. You will laugh at this contre temps [bad time] some day. Of course it wd. be disastrous to go to the other extreme and conclude that one was a genius because one had failed in a prelim–as if a horse imagined it must be a Derby winner because it couldn’t be taught to pull a four-wheeler!–but I don’t expect that is the extreme to which you are temperamentally inclined.
Are you in any danger of seeking consolation in Resentment? I have no reason to suppose you are, but it is a favourite desire of the human mind (certainly of my mind!) and one wants to be on one’s guard against it. And that is about the only way in which an early failure like this can become a real permanent injury. A belief that one has been misused, a tendency ever after to snap and snarl at ‘the system’–that, I think, makes a man always a bore, usually an ass, sometimes a villain. So don’t think either that you are no good or that you are a Victim. Write the whole thing off and get on.
You may reply ‘It’s easy talking.’ I shan’t blame you if you do. I remember only too well what a hopeless oyster to be opened the world seemed at your age. I would have given a good deal to anyone who cd. have assured me that I ever wd. be able to persuade anyone to pay me a living wage for anything I cd. do. Life consisted of applying for jobs which other people got, writing books that no one wd. publish, and giving lectures wh. no one attended.
It all looks perfectly hopeless. Yet the vast majority of us manage to get in somewhere and
shake down somehow in the end.
You are now going through what most people (at any rate most of the people I know) find in retrospect to have been the most unpleasant period of their lives. But it won’t last: the road usually improves later. I think life is rather like a lumpy bed in a bad hotel. At first you can’t imagine how you can lie on it, much less sleep in it. But presently one finds the right position and finally one is snoring away. By the time one is called it seems a v. good bed and one is loth to leave it.
This is a devilish stodgy letter. There’s no need to bother answering it. I go to Ireland on the 11th. Give my love to all & thank Sylvia for my bathing suit.