C.S. Lewis on Ordinary People

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations –these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”

–C.S. Lewis

Cheers to a brand spanking new year! It took me a full 3 seconds to decide that this quote would be the first “Weekly Passage.” If I had the magical power to convince every person in the world to read just one thing, this paragraph would be it. These words reveal the very heart of everything. Clive Staples Lewis (what a name, though!) lends us his eyes in this passage, and through them the world not only makes sense, but we detect the greater story unfolding .

We suddenly see what we have been looking at all along.

The best thing happens with those first two sentences; the questions come bubbling up. Ordinary people. Staring at my laptop, black coffee in hand, boots on my feet and hair in a braid, I feel pretty ordinary (like an ordinary nerd); I don’t know about you. We can interpret this in a few ways, ranging from the things we do every day to our profound human identities. While we all partake in those daily, “ordinary” human tasks that we unknowingly signed up for at our birth (well, except for my mother who I’m quite sure never sleeps and my brother who I’m quite sure never showers), even those mundane things are only the same on the surface. If we pay attention, no doubt we will find that we all sip a cup of coffee literally quite differently, with different idiosyncrasies and in a different spirit. Even here, there are no ordinary people.

Then, we may be tempted to refute his claim by pointing out how the lives of so many people still follow a similar, sluggish pattern, so the little differences don’t seem to have any significance. True, we are sometimes tempted to go about our day-to-day lives as act ordinary, or average, or lukewarm, but I really think that this is more of a cowardly disguise because we are nervous to confront the truth that there is something intrinsically precious and rare in us all. No two are alike, yet all are equal in unfathomable worth. Once you know that, you know that you owe more to yourself and the people around you. It’s scary to think that you are meant to become someone that no one else can become.

Now taken literally, C.S. Lewis was a Christian, and Christians believe that each human soul is eternal. That still sounds very abstract, though, so maybe it is better to emphasize that we believe everyone will live in the presence of our Creator and Father forever, and ever, and ever, and ever, and ever, and ever, and ever, and ever… How often do we think about this? If this is true, this certainly changes things. I think that Lewis would agree that you are most at peace when your daily activities flow from who you are; that is to say, you make daily decisions knowing that yourself and those around you are headed towards eternity. This world is passing away, and we are all one one big family road trip on our way to “a country we have never visited.”

The next portion initially baffled me. What do you mean the life of our great American nation is like the life of a gnat? Here we encounter a concept of time that is unfamiliar, but logical. Our invisible souls are eternal; magnificent, rock-solid kingdoms pass away. Even Rome fell. “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinth. 4:18).

We are brought up to desire the glory of being a part of something bigger than ourselves, from our dysfunctional families, to our book clubs, to our universities, to our countries. But all the significance of these nations, cultures, arts, etc. derives from their relationship to humanity. Here, it is easy to see that our purest association, family, grants the most human happiness as we share our works, joys and sufferings with those eternal souls who know us the best of all. The remarkable patentors of the Great American Experiment had it right here, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” We must enjoy the vast riches that we can see with our eyes, from wondering at a gentle snowfall, to letting the huge ocean waves knock us off our feet, but we won’t find what we’re looking for until we can see Who they point to.

We must play. I sometimes think this is the best sentence I have ever read. I’m very tempted to set sail at once with my closest friends. You know those moments that you feel exuberant, when the joy bubbles out of you in great guffaws? Better, have you ever caught the mirth in a beloved’s eye, and shared a smile deeper in your heart than has ever spread across your face? It is in our childish play that not only do we find our purest happiness, but we find the feeling of home. When you glimpse the shimmer of another’s soul during such play, you know very well what C.S. Lewis meant.

And now, to bookend this piece properly by sharing with you the glorious passage preceding the above quote:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which,if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.

If you’re reading this, thanks for hanging until the end (though I cannot fathom how you were able to accomplish it.) As the barista in this cafe just boisterously proclaimed to its humble occupants, “New year, new us!”

Here’s to making all things new.

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Hold On To Your Humanity

Last Friday, the Comunidad 19 traveled to the Haitian-Dominican border in order to witness market day. The pushing of the crowd quickly pushed each of us through the initial shock of doing something few of us ever pictured ourselves doing. As my eyes soaked in the piles of dirty, donated merchandise presided over by glazed stares, I was overwhelmed by the atmosphere that vibrated the very air with sounds of struggling humans– struggling for their daily bread and struggling to believe in their dignity. During that day, I met more faces and still shared smiles, but I could not help but be moved by the fact that this brutal learning exercise for me was their ugly, daily reality.  Did they know that they were made for more? How could they? As is brilliantly noted in one of my favorite travel articles of all time,

“Happiness is important, sure. But it’s also common and can be found in most situations once your mind adjusts to your surroundings. You can find happiness in any slum or in any mansion, on the beach, in the mountains, or in the middle of the desert.

But what is rare in many parts of the world is human dignity. You know, people who aren’t treated like animals — used, ignored, cheated, beaten, mutilated, silenced, or suppressed” (5 Life Lessons from 5 Years of Traveling).

I have explored marketplaces before, most impressionably the Jerusalem bazaar shown below, but what really struck me about this binational convention was the distinct lack of crafts, or anything locally hand-cooked or hand-made for that matter. Everything was packaged in crisp plastic, evidently manufactured in bulk, and soiled from the transport. Clearly there is no fault in making your living by reselling donations, but the initial tragedy that I realized was the lack of resources and training available for the merchants to harness their human creativity and ingenuity in providing unique goods, services, and creating wealth. As humans, we take pride in the works of our hands. We love to create beauty and order when we cannot find it naturally in the world around us. I would have leapt for joy at the sight of one single artist.

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”Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.”

Unfortunately, the picture gets substantially darker. Underlying the ugly market is the uglier disease of rampant corruption, bribery, and mistreatment. Whenever there is a situation where one group’s livelihood is at the mercy of another, there you will find scumbags taking advantage of the powerless

…but on that battlefield you will also encounter those who choose have turned their backs on comfortable, safe lives in order to protect the powerless. They hold on to what makes us human.

During our stay in Dajabón, our group listened to two talks by groups who labor to protect and defend, sometimes in the face of persecution– our first speaker had just been released from over 500 days of unjust imprisonment. Relations between Haiti and the Dominican Republic are complicated and overshadowed by miscommunication and misinformation, but there are always those who profit off the weak and those who speak up for them.

I know which side I want to be on.

On that theme, I’d just like to share a TED talk that I watched this morning. It’s uncomfortable, unsettling, and not fun, but it’s infinitely better to work at bringing truth, dignity and beauty to the uglier faces of life than to cowardly cast our eyes away. Hold on to your humanity.