Monday, June 30, 2008

When C.S. Lewis Lost His Cool

The post Christian conversion Lewis is generally known for keeping his cool. He's described as calm, caring, and genuinely sincere in his interactions with people in person and via correspondence. This is the Lewis I tried to depict, fictionally, in my book Conversations with C.S. Lewis. He's firm in his convictions, but winsome in sharing his faith with "gentleness and respect" (1 Peter 3:15).

But did C.S. Lewis ever lose his cool? He did. Douglas Gresham, stepson to Lewis, shares the story in his book Lenten Lands: My Childhood with Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis. To give some brief background to the story, Lewis married Joy Davidman, who later developed cancer. She was not expected to live long.

In 1960, Lewis and Joy took a trip to Greece. The trip was, at times, a struggle for Joy. During one outing in Mycenae to the Lion Gate, Joy, exhausted from the walk up a hill told Lewis that she needed a rest. They stopped off to the side. Then a tourist "came puffing up the hill," as Gresham tells it, making "a snide comment" about Lewis and Joy not making it all the way up: "Well! You didn't get very far, did you?"

And Lewis lost his cool. He walked over to the woman and punched her in the stomach. Just kidding. I just wanted to see if you were paying attention. But he did lose his cool and remarked to the woman, "Oh, go and have a heart attack!"

Not long after the woman was carried down the hill on a stretcher. Apparently, she did have a heart attack.

Lewis was devastated. He chided himself for being harsh with the woman, expressing openly his shame and guilt. As Gresham puts it, Lewis's attitude "was that for him to wish ill upon another human being was a deeply shameful act and he was embarrassed and hurt by [Joy's] telling of the tale."

For Lewis, losing his cool in this instance was a moral mistake, a move, as he might put it, more towards vice in his character than towards virtue. He cared deeply about his everyday ethical choices and this episode of harshness bothered him. To treat another human being, made in the image of God, so severely was wrong.

As Lewis said in his sermon, "The Weight of Glory," preached in 1941, "There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal ... it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit--immortal horrors or everlasting splendours." Something to keep in mind when we think we might lose our cool.

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