C.S. Lewis’ Advice to Students When Everything Seems in Ruins

austin powers villainI was tempted to call this blog, “How to Keep from Being a Bore, an Ass, or a Villain.” You’ll see why very soon.

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).

Generation-YWhat 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?

Letters to Children by CS LewisThis 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.

collected letters cs lewis volume 3 ed by walter hooperWhat 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.


C.S. Lewis


About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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29 Responses to C.S. Lewis’ Advice to Students When Everything Seems in Ruins

  1. jubilare says:

    I will have to store this one away for times to come.


  2. A very valuable blog in a day of great trials over schools, jobs, etc. Interestingly enough, there are three items which were hardly on Lewis’ radar that add to the trials and their severity, namely, robots, automation, and computers. These three items have basically made the whole world unemployable. Humans, it might be said, need not apply; they are not needed. A robot, a computer, and automation can and does remove them from the scene. About 24 years ago, I wrote a paper evaluating some materials for a county vocational director on jobs in the future. The result was the I concluded that there were no jobs for our children needed in the future. Now I think the idea of useless eaters, so H.G. Wells, is a way of identifying those whom the behind the scenes folks of Lewis supposedly fictional conspiracy in his three volumes sci/fi novels intend to exterminate, the 5.5 billion plus people who must die as the Guidestones of Georgia put it.

    In addition, the one conspirator named by Lewis in That Hideous Strength, Cecil Rhodes, is, indeed, presented in Dr. Carroll Quigley’s work, Tragedy and Hope, NY & London: Macmillan House, 1965, as a one of the members of a cabal who basically run the world from behind the scenes. One recent leader has admitted that he is the member of such a cabal and proud of it. Sad that they should want to get rid of the excess population, when the universe is opening up as the unlimited frontier (like the Old West), a more than adequate outlet for the population increase I should think. Just consider the late Ben Rich’s statement to some alum of UCLA in 1993 followed by the physicist Alcubierre’s theory for faster than light travel in 1994 (a year late, no doubt, except the matter has been going on on since the 60s and maybe even earlier) that we could take E.T. home. Ah, well, maybe the dummies will wake up one of these days and realize you can’t have anything without a truly reveal Divine morality and the means for it to come to be as Lewis underscored in his writings.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      What a tonic stimulus to further thinking – “there are three items which were hardly on Lewis’ radar that add to the trials and their severity, namely, robots, automation, and computers”: thank you! This might largely be said of those other major Inklings, Tolkien and Williams, too, though Tolkien has an astonishing sort of cyborg dragon at one point in his working out of the fall of Gondolin, and the transportation implications of the Stone in Williams’s Many Dimensions would probably involve automation in one way and another. And it’s interesting to think the global-computer-dystopia of Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” was published a mere three-and-a-third years after Lewis’s death, while the microcosmic-computer-dystopia of Discovery One thanks to HAL 9000 in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey appeared the year after that (I don’t know if it was already part of the 1964 draft of the novel).

      However, if robots, automation, and computers do not receive specific attention, they could arguably be related to the attention (most notably, in Lewis’s case, in those companion works, The Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength) to the interrelations of magic and applied science and their uses in the instrumentalization of some people by other people, and, in aspiration and likelihood, of the many by a comparative few – an instrumentalization which indifferently embodies the use or destruction of its innumerable (intended) victims.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I should point out that the term robots was used in a play, later made in to a movie, I think, R.U.R. in 1921. The author Karel Capek wrote that the term robot came from his brother. In any case, the Wikipedia has an interesting article on robots. The gentlemen under consideration were, likely, aware of the idea, being well read and informed as to what was going on in the world at that time.

        In any case, one company in Taiwan now has 10,000 robots and plans to add a 1,000,000 more. So much workers, and the many classifications on the Wikipedia page suggest that practically every human job is up for grabs.

        The head of the Tesla Automotive Company had said in an interview that he is definitely concerned about the threat that robots pose to human life. Hopefully, we shall be able to unite the robots with our explorations among the stars. I must also point out that plans are affot, if they have not already been implemented (and I suspect they have) to imitate the human brain with its many tendrils or whatever is the appropriate term for the multitudinous electrical circuits of the brain. We are facing a future that is incomprehensible and overwhelmingly complex, one that no doubt might well require a math far beyond that of fractals or the theory that handles chaos (???). Here is where we need to really consider that the Bible is inspired by omniscience and that it, therefore, must reflect a wisdom commensurate with that reality which it does, if my scratchings of the surface are any indication. Just consider how we want to reconcile apparently contradictory theological ideas, e.g., the antinomies or paradoxes or contrarieties (as the Puritans called them, when they were not meant to be reconciled. Instead their design, apparently, was to provide a tension in the human mind, a welcome one, where one does not want to resolve the tension or get rid of it. That tension is what enables the believer to be balanced, flexible, creative, constant, and magnetic or, in short, God’s best subliminal advertisement in this world of sin and shame, the mature believer, the adult child of God, the full grown believer.


        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          The Wikipedia does look interesting – and has links to things like “Robots in liiterature” and “List of fictional robot and androids” – curiously my skimming did not see a link to their article on that fraudulent but impressive 18th-c. seeming chess-playing mechanical man, “The Turk”. I’ve only browsed R.U.R., but see their article has a link to an online translation – but not to the LibriVox dramatization of the earlier translation by Paul Selver (who, if I recall aright, reviewed some of Williams’s poetry in a German periodical in the 1920s!). Another book of Karel Čapek’s which I want to catch up with is his satirical science fiction novel, War with the Newts – a translation of which I see Allen and Unwin published the year before they published The Hobbit!


  3. AnnaEstelle says:

    Reblogged this on Between Horizons and commented:
    I find this post quite relevant, as I am preparing for a stab at the general GRE this weekend and feeling immensely unprepared and overwhelmingly discouraged. I suppose there’s more to life than examinations, incomplete homework, and a long list of events that happen at the same time, each of which I am either obligated or required to attend. Perhaps it’s best to pay attention to people like Lewis. After all, “It all looks perfectly hopeless. Yet the vast majority of us manage to get in somewhere and shake down somehow in the end.”

    Liked by 1 person

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  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you for this letter and post! I came to it just having made the acquaintance (thanks to the audiobook) of several relevant letters selected in Richard P.Feynman, Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Path, beginning with a wonderful one to his mother of 39 August 1954, about her work, another, from 20 February 1961, to an Eighth-grader writing a “job survey” who had inquired about “job opportunities” and “pay rates” as a theoretical physicist in which he replied that he had “no information on any of the questions that you asked me. If you asked me, is it an adventuresome and exciting life trying to find out how nature works, I could answer that: it is, and it is a lot of fun – but make sure you have talent for it”, and a third, of 26 July 1961, to an editor about a “biographical note” about him with a question about how he became attracted to science, replying, “my father, a businessman, had a great interest in science: he told me fascinating things about the stars, numbers, electricity, etc. Wherever we went, there were always new wonders to hear about […] so I have always been a scientist […] and thank him for this great gift to me.”


    • Thanks for those David. You tempt me away to new books…again!
      I love how letters tell the truth in such unrhetorical ways, if I can coin a word.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Resist temptation! (But file it away and someday browse, or listen, around in it at your leisure. Though everyone might make an exception as to that letter to his mother, if they find they have access to the (audio)book – it seems very relevant to this post! I’ve also lately encountered all sorts of interesting – and very entertaining – Feynman lectures and what not on YouTube – as you glimpse in the quotations, he’s very good about wonder, imagination, love of learning.)

        And, yes – the freedom of letters to be relaxed and candid can be wonderful!


  6. I love that C.S. Lewis can be so profound and humorous at the same time. The words of his letter are very encouraging and applicable in my working/college life right now, but at the same time, his way of relating the ridiculous and temporary nature of things in life makes me laugh at myself and all the things I worry about. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I found this very profound, especially when you realize it comes from a survivor of Aushwitz.- “Human existence is essentially self-transcendence rather than self-actualization. Self-actualization is not a possible aim at all; for the simple reason that the more a man would strive for it, the more he would miss it. For only to the extent to which man commits himself to the fulfillment of his life’s meaning, to this extent he also actualizes himself. In other words, self-actualization cannot be attained if it is made an end in itself, but only as a side-effect of self-transcendence”.[Victor E Frankl]


    • Frankl’s work continues to astound me.


    • Frankl is noted for his logotherapy, and he is one of the progenitors of the therapeutic paradox theory and method of treating mental problems. It is interesting to note that the biblical teachings, often, seemingly, so stern, can be taken as paradoxes, reverse psychology, intended to move the sinner off dead-center. The same can be said for shock therapy. The intellectualism of the Bible, some of which Lewis so aptly discerned and discussed, has yet to be studied to the degree that it deserves. Consider two items: 1) If the Bible is the product of inspiration by an omniscient being, then it follows that it must reflect a wisdom commensurate with such a source. 2) Biblical truths are two-poled and apparently contradictory. They are not meant to be reconciled. Instead they produce a tension in the mind of a believer which enables that individual to respond to a given situation appropriately, e.g, sovereignty on the one hand and responsibility on the other hand. In other words, such truths, two-sided and contradictory, providing the tension in the mind, enable a person to be balanced, flexible, creative, constant, and magnetic..


      • You omitted a third and more positive option. C. S. Lewis talks about “receiving” a book instead of “using” it, a different way to read text. If the Bible is the product of an omniscient mind then it is quite possible that the contradictions enhance the intellectual depth and wisdom of the text and that they have been deliberately placed there to demand an increase in the level of intellectual effort and spiritual/mental/physical interaction with the Author required to reconcile the apparent contradictions, and then reward such effort with a deeper knowledge of the Author during the interactive process of reconcilliation. I think this interaction is the substance, the intellectual dimension of it anyway, of what everyone calls “faith” and I think this is what the Author is telling us in Proverbs 25:2 “It is the glory of God to conceal a thing: but the honour of kings is to search out a matter.”


        • Dear Patrick: I regard the idea of contradictions as a non sequitur; the inference does not follow from the premise. As an atheist, I thought the Bible was absurd, but with conversion (against my will and nature) and with the use of the mind in intellectual studies I had to conclude that thinking the Book is contradictory is a waste of time. Apparently contradictory is another matter. The apparent contradictions are not meant to be resolved; the poles of the paradoxes are what create the tension necessary to a response to reality from one pole or the other – which ever is evidently appropriate. The intellectual aspect of the Bible is much deeper than the mere contradictions might seem. The depth is in the ideas and how they fit the human situation at any given time, being always relevant and contemporary – even when they seem utterly inapplicable. Don’t allow yourself to be side tracked by Satan’s efforts to make biblical statements to be irrelevancies. Their depth will soon disabuse a person of that persuasion, if the matter is examined more closely and more thoroughly.


          • Hi James, I agree wholeheartedly that for a brain to comprehend and communicate complex meaning, it must be in a state of “chaotic disequilibrium.” I also, like you, have realised that “thinking the Bible is contradictory is a waste of time.” Apparent contradictions in the text are real though, they are there, “… there is no more counter-intuitive spiritual idea than the possibility that God might actually use and find necessary what we fear, avoid, deny and deem unworthy…” [Richard Rohr].

            To imagine, however, that “the apparent contradictions are not meant to be resolved” is merely encouraging “cognitive dissonance” in individuals which is the feelings of discomfort that come from simultaneously holding two or more conflicting cognitions: ideas, beliefs, values or emotional reactions. If the dissonance is not reduced by changing one’s belief, the dissonance can result in restoring consonance through misperception, rejection or refutation of the information.

            I am proposing that Jesus tells us to “rethink our way of thinking” in Romans 12:1-2. We are in the dock, not God.”The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. ” [C.S.Lewis ] The Author“renews our minds and our thinking itself” when we resolve the apparent contradictions.

            During our attempts at reconciliation there is a dynamic flow of communication between all of the regions of the brain, and the Author (LIFE/TRUTH/WAY) which facilitates the comprehension of higher levels of mental order (breaking intellectual conceptual thresholds through the influence of the Spiritual), and this leads to the formation of increased mental capacity to retain and think about more complex ideas. The more strongly, therefore, our desire for the Truth or our inclination for the Truth acts on our minds the more likely we are to perform the act or work of thinking correctly.

            Professor Dallas Willard describes what holds our thinking back. “An inability to find our way out of our own mind and thoughts to an “Other” which is reliably there turns us back in on our ‘selves’ and our own desires become the reasons to justify whatever “we will”. Then our vision of freedom becomes our prison because we are unable to see any bars.”


            • Dear Patrick: Suggest you take a look at Paul Halmos’ The Faith of Counsellors, NY: Schocken Books, 1969(? not sure of date). His theory which perhaps has some relationship to Feistinger’s Cognitive Dissonance actually seems to go beyond it, realizing that there is a kind that actually enables a counselor (note two lls, British, Prof. of Sociology, Univ. of Cardiff ,Wales or the other one there) to be better able to counseling, i.e., be objective and gather facts or subjective and provide support to client. This theory of creative dissonance as Dr. Halmos called it, dovetailed with my researches in church history, where I found that biblical doctrines are apparently contradictory and evidently intended for a like purpose, that is, to produce a desirable tension in the mind which enables a believer to balanced, etc.. Since then (early 70s) I have come across other sources of a similar nature and findings. Higher mental orders is a charade to cover prejudice as far as I am concerned, since we are all equipped with brains. While aptitudes clearly vary from person to person, the individual can do years of research as I did (six years in church history, two years on the pericope, I Cors.12:31b-I Cors.14:1a), agape love, and etc.), which will enable people to grasp the thoughts that indicate that our present day scientific method is too analytical, a very poor basis on which to base a theory. A more syntehtical theory works much better.


  8. The mental energy involved in working out a normal mathematical problem moves the brain into a state of “chaotic disequilibrium”, no higher mental orders are required and there are no scientific or synthetical theories which have the capacity to transform your thinking and renew your mind.
    “The renewing of the mind (the ability to receive the love of Jesus Christ) is brought about only by an interior experience of the spirit (1John 3:24; 4:13) through which the Holy Spirit conveys a “certainty and light independent of any human influence”, and this certainty and light fructifies in trust, in an absolute confidence which drives out fear”. [Guillet]


  9. Dear Patrick: Please note that I was no giving a mere opinion, but ideas and concepts based on research of many years. I also call your attention to the tension idea and responding to a given situation appropriately. Obviously, we are coming at the matter from different backgrounds and perspectives.

    What you say about mathematics might well be true of that field, but it is not true in the realm of ideas and their influence on behavior. It is also not true in other fields, including magnetic, where one must have a positive and a negative pole in order to have a field or so I understand. In any case, my replies to you were based upon three fields of study having to do with the issue involved. history, theology, and counseling. Interestingly enough, I had a colleague on the faculty of the school where I taught for two years, and he had a Ph.D. in Math from Columbia Univ. We were well able to communicate, and he did not seem to think my understandings were outré. There is no future in this exchange I suggest we bring it to an end. Wait until you find out that our scientific method is wanting in some respects, that it suffers from the paralysis of analysis, that the situation changes radically when the null hypothesis is also true. I encountered this problem while working on my MA in Intellectual History, and later met a science educator who was dumbfounded that a preacher should know such a thing. Seems they were discussing the problem in her Ph.D. classes at the time. What is your educational background, etc.? Perhaps, that might help us understand each other better.


    • Hi James,
      Like you I also find the scientific method wanting, and like you I also see no future in this exchange. I don’t have much of an educational background to speak of and I was only offering my limited opinion. Thank you for your comments I am sure they were appreciated by the readers.


  10. David Llewellyn Dodds says:


    I am not sure how – or how far – it may relate to your discussion, but your discussion reminded me of a fascinating passage in an essay of Lewis’s published in 1934 in Essays and Studies, vol. xix, concerned with a contemporary reader’s experience of the King James Version translation of Isaiah 13:19-22 (omitting the last two clauses of v. 22). The essay became the first part of what was later published as The Personal Heresy: A Controversy (OUP, 1939) between Lewis and E.M.W. Tillyard. In any case, I commend it to your attention (if you can locate a copy! – it was also issued as a paperback in 1965).


    • Thanks very much for your tip David, much appreciated. I have just refreshed myself by reading both the NIV and the KJV version of Isaiah 13:19-22 but unfortunately I do not have access to the essay you mention or the publication, so I will now jump onto the web and search for it. Thanks again


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  14. emj says:

    Reblogged this on (em)nigma and commented:
    “It all looks perfectly hopeless. Yet the vast majority of us manage to get in somewhere and shake down somehow in the end.”


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