Enslaved to the Pressure of the Ordinary: What Screwtape Taught Me About my COVID Experience

It really has been an extraordinary year. For those future readers who haunt these literary halls, 2020 began easily enough. The British were brexiting, the Americans were engulfed in a couple of primaries to see which old white man would compete to rule the known world, and the Canadians were apologizing (and quietly mocking you behind your back). There were destabilized regions in the world, no doubt: enough sorrow and heartache and loneliness to break one’s heart. But that is never new in any new year in our 7-billion person planetary bubble.

In the new year, there was nothing in 2020 to suggest that things would be terribly different this year. In the places where most of my colleagues and friends live, the economy was moving forward at a pretty solid pace. Many of my friends were making plans for winter vacations, and I was planning out a spring season of conference papers in Ontario and Indiana, and a research trip to the Marion E. Wade Center in Wheaton, IL. In January, I received an email to say that I had gotten my PhD and could graduate in March, and I was a little sad that I could not travel to the UK to walk across the stage. No matter, the real work was done. The piece of paper really just pointed me to the work I had ahead of me.

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Oh, how the plans of man go astray!

Folks who are better at reading the times may have put things together before I had done. I became alarmed just after Valentine’s Day. Because of busy restaurants, we tend to celebrate Valentine’s day on 03/14, Pi Day, not 02/14, the Feast Day of Valentinus. By mid-February, cases of a novel coronavirus were doubling weekly in a province of China I had never heard of, and the country was responding with a kind of military lockdown. This is when the cruise ships were being quarantine-docked off various coasts, and cases were starting to light up in Iran, Italy, and clustered around some church groups in South Korea.

I should have known then, right? I am an avid reader of SF, including apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic literature. I love me a good end-of-the-world film. Yet, how blind I was not to see the signs of the times.

I suppose we had some hint of things to come. I was in the midst of a 10-part sermon series called “Remembering Heaven,” only to discover how hard it is to talk about heaven when the world is ending all around you. As March began, cases were exploding in Europe and the United States had had its first exposure. In Canada, we had COVID-sufferers quarantining in military bases, but no community spread just yet. On Mar 1st, I preached about creation care, “A Rift in the Rim of the World.” We began livestreaming that day, knowing we had to figure it out so that older folks and those with illness could experience some teaching and singing while staying home. It turns out that it was a wise move, and the tech team at my little local church has spent countless hours this year making things as connected as possible.

On Mar 15th, I gave the last live, in-person sermon of the series, a talk entitled “Fear Not!”–accompanied by a blog post with some of the same themes, “Why the Logic of Prevention will Always Fail for Some: Steady Thoughts in Response to COVID-19.” At the time, I was already seeing the politicization of what was evidently going to be a pandemic as places like the UK and the US destabilized in the midst of a flurry of confused messaging. I was teaching students in New York City online when it suddenly became a hotspot and the city shut down as various states were calling for shelter-in-place orders. Here in Prince Edward Island, the lockdown came just as the first community cases were appearing in Canada. My students scattered throughout the world, getting out if they could, getting in while they were able, and waiting out that first wave in the homes of family and friends–though sometimes in empty dorm rooms, by themselves, with their four walls.

On Mar 29th, I was preaching out of the creation story, and title my sermon, “It is not Good for Man to be Alone.” And yet we were very alone, even those of us in lockdown, self-isolation, or quarantine with family or friends. Some are still embroiled in loneliness, as the empty chair pictures on American Thanksgiving have testified to–pictures of the places where lost or distanced loved ones usually sit when it is time to share food and stories together. 1.5m people have died of COVID-19, including 12,000 in Canada and more than a quarter-million in the US, making it a leading cause of death in that country. But there is a twin effect to the pandemic, the accumulating effects of loss, grief, loneliness, weight-gain, desk-place injuries, addictions, various aspects of mental illness, and the myriad tendrils of poverty-related illness and loss. In Time magazine’s terms, “COVID” is the man of the year.

Personally, I was not really lonely during the lockdown. At first, I was so overwhelmed by work that I could barely think about it. It was amusingly difficult to reign in 100 students in 4 different classes from across the continents so I could help them get across their semester-end finish line. Most of them made it, though students on the edge of failure at mid-term found the challenges of distanced-education and self-regulated workload and tech-necessity too much to bear. I began work early in the morning and worked until late at night–as my wife did, trying to figure out how to teach kindergarten through a screen, and as my son adjusted to grade 10 in a remote emergency educations system.

I was deluged by work. But when I could lift my head and look around, I was ceaselessly amazed by how strange it all was. We began daily walks along the shore or through our now-empty downtown. Old flyers from concerts–remember concerts?–fluttered through the streets like urban tumbleweed. Storekeepers had each written personal notes of hope and desperation on their shop windows. Kids at home–and not a few adults, I’m sure–put teddy bears in the window to remind passersby of … well, of something that is not fear and death and loneliness.

It really was a profound time. It still is. I am astounded by the human casualty due to the pandemic and the pandemic prevention measures. I feel deeply for those who are lost or trapped or in desperation. I wish I could say that I am surprised by the strange, self-serving politicization of COVID responses, but I am saddened by it–particularly as so many of my brothers and sisters in Christ, whose core commandment is to “love God” and “love your neighbour as you love yourself,” continue to speak in terms like “I gotta have my rights, see”–that’s a quote from one of C.S. Lewis’ characters in The Great Divorce–or who trap themselves in conspiratorial mind-prisons that limit their view of the world and show skeptics North American Christianity is really a me-first affair. I’m sad, but I am not surprised.

But what impresses me most–what has shaken my unreflective self-consciousness–is how moved I am by COVID19. It has been a significant career disruption, but I have not lost anyone close to me or suffered any ill effects myself. I live in a safe place, with a loving family and good work to do–whether I am paid for it or not. I have a home and a garden and a church that is doing its dead-level best in the midst of the madness. I am in the best possible space to “do COVID well,” as the young folk say.

And yet, I have found this to be a profoundly difficult year. I have come to realize how very shaken I am by all of this. There are people I know and love who are trapped by loneliness, seized by fear of the disease, or obsessed by statistical charts or political arguments. But for me, the strange self-revelation of 2020, is how much I am mourning the ordinary. I don’t want a new normal, I have come to realize. I want the old normal, the patterns and stirrings and possibilities of everyday life before the end of the world hit in early 2020. I try to live reflectively, choosing for most of my adult life to resist many of the traps of worldly life–the North American suburban postcard of economic-chain-contribution success. I know that my faith is founded in something much more substantial than the clicking forward of timeclock days and flickering screen nights. My hope is not in the things of this world.

But when the world changed, I found it tremendously difficult to accept that change. Intellectually, I was fine. And yet I have remained stirred by this moment from the beginning.

I am amazed by how moved I am by the disruption of everyday life in 2020.

It was in preparing for my Pints with Jack podcast talk on The Screwtape Letters a few weeks ago when things clicked for me. Unsurprisingly, I have found wisdom in Screwtape’s pithy advice, relevance even for my day. And, as usual, it is a lesson that has been before me all these years, but it took a change in me as a reader to see it. If the lesson couldn’t be clearer, though, it occurs in the very first letter. The demonic Screwtape teaches his protégé this critical piece of practical anthropology:

“Remember, he is not, like you, a pure spirit. Never having been a human (Oh that abominable advantage of the Enemy’s!) you don’t realise how enslaved they are to the pressure of the ordinary.”

I don’t know perfectly well how I have been reading this letter, but I am sure I have been thinking something like this: “yes, that’s right–it is the hum and noise of everyday life, the rhythm and the pattern, that distracts us from seeing the important things, the eternal things.” Yes, that is the lesson. But the abstract lesson took on concrete forms for me in 2020.

It isn’t just that ordinary existence–“real life” Screwtape calls it sardonically–can distract me from deeper things. No. I have discovered that I am, body and soul, committed to the ordinary. I have always thought that I was not particularly susceptible to Screwtape’s key point about human spiritual life:

“Thanks to processes which we set at work in them centuries ago, they find it all but impossible to believe in the unfamiliar while the familiar is before their eyes”

COVID gives us no new facts about human mortality, no new revelations about the divine. And yet, it has taught me something new about myself. It has taken the unfamiliar–lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, red bubbles of data visualization on the screen, zoom classes and e-church and quiet holiday dinners–for me to see how enslaved I am to the ordinary.

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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9 Responses to Enslaved to the Pressure of the Ordinary: What Screwtape Taught Me About my COVID Experience

  1. Dear Mr. Dickieson,
    I think you are being a little bit too hard on yourself. “Ordinary Life” can be a good gift from God. It is when our clinging to or yearning for ordinary leads us to sin that is the danger. If we hold it loosely, if we are willing to accept whatever God brings us in each day, I am not certain it is wrong to appreciate and savor the good in the ordinary.

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    • Thanks for the note, Debby. I’m not feeling terribly badly about it, but am astounded by how deep this experience has been for me. It has revealed in me a much deeper attachment to world patterns and systems than I thought I had. I think there can be lots of beauty and health in the ordinary, the mundane, the homely.

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  2. Jared says:

    There certainly is a “liturgy in the ordinary,” as Dr/Mrs Warren puts it, & I’m glad there are some who do it well. On the other hand, and being such a slave to my routines myself, I can’t escape the fact that nostalgia – “I want the old normal back” – is also antithetical to faith. I doubt I walk that balance beam very well any given day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, exactly, as I say about, there can be lots of beauty and health in the ordinary, the mundane, and the homely. However, it is the attachment–the slavery–that makes for my wanting to watch what’s going on in my own life.

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