"A Grief Observed"
C. S. Lewis
89 pages, 1961
Anyone new to this blog may wonder why I am including a book review having absolutely nothing to do with hyperemesis! I will note, therefore, for the benefit of said newcomers, that this blog is also an examination of the spiritual meaning behind human suffering, from a Christian perspective.
I loved this little book. Actually, it's not a "book" per se, but a journal of notes jotted by Lewis after the death of his beloved wife, Joy. It is a precious volume that I have now read about three times and loved more each time.
This book is completely different from "The Problem of Pain," also by Lewis. "PoP" was written from an intellectual standpoint - a logical and theological examination of the purposes behind human suffering. While PoP was a truly great book which greatly advanced my knowledge, it did not really touch my heart. AGO (A Grief Observed), while much less scholarly and much more personal, helped me greatly along my journey of understanding.
The term that comes to mind for this book is "raw." Lewis wrote it while deeply hurt and grieving. He expresses doubt, anger, despair - all of the emotions experienced by anyone in the throes of great physical or mental suffering. But just as a hug means more to a suffering person than does a lecture, so does this type of book speak more deeply to someone trying to understand suffering than does a scholarly essay.
Here are a few great quotes from this book:
"Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be - or so it feels - welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door sleammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?" (pp. 17-18)
I think we have all felt like this in moments of despair.
"Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not 'So there's no God after all,' but 'So this is what God's really like. Deceive yourself no longer.'" (pp. 18-19)
I have definitely felt the danger of this temptation - not to cease to believe in God, but to believe Him to be other than Good - what a horrible thought.
"It is hard to have patience with people who say, 'There is no death' or 'Death doesn't matter.' There is death. And whatever is matters. And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible. You might as well say that birth doesn't matter." (pp. 28-29)
Very true! And I'm sure I've murmured the same platitudes unthinkingly.
"Talk to me about the truth of religion and I'll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I'll listen submissively. But don't come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don't understand." (p. 37)
Oh, how true this sometimes feels in moments of depression and hopelessness.
"Your bid - for God or no God, for a good God or the Cosmic Sadist, for eternal life or nonentity - will not be serious if nothing much is staked on it. And you will never discover how serious it was until the stakes are raised horribly high; until you find that you are playing not for counters or for sixpences but for every penny you have in the world. Nothing less will shake a man - or at any rate a man like me - out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only torture will bring out the truth. Only under torture does he discover it himself. And I must admit... that, if my house was a hosue of cards, the sooner it was knocked down the better. And only suffering could do it." (pp. 49-50)
Suffering is truly the great truth-teller - it reveals our faith for what it truly is, not what we thought it was because we were happy and well. We all have to go through this stripping away at some point.
"What is grief compared with physical pain? .... The body can suffer twenty times more than the mind. The mind has always some power of evasion. At worst, the unbearable thought only comes back and back, but the physical pain can be absolutely continuous. Grief is like a bomber circling round and dropping its bombs each time the circle brings it overhead; physical pain is like the steady barrage on a trench in World War One, hours of it with no let-up for a moment. Thought is never static; pain often is." (pp. 52-53)
The one advantage of mental pain over physical - that there is occasional relief from it (with sleep, with social interaction, with moments of forgetfulness). But each type of pain carries its own suffering, regardless of the pattern of recurrence. Right now, as I am dealing with the subject of physical suffering, mental suffering seems preferable. But I know that when I'm experiencing mental suffering, I long to exchange it for physical! A no-win situation.
I loved this book and highly recommend it. I'll definitely be picking up a copy whenever I find one somewhere. It's great to know that people (even the great C. S. Lewis!) go through spiritual struggles and times of lowness as well as oneself - kind of a brotherhood of human spiritual experience. Very comforting, and very reassuring.