When I get called in to speak, it’s either on the topic of C. S. Lewis or calling. That’s about all I’m good for, I like to joke (half-jokingly). The best is when I can share a bit on both.
As a minister for university engagement in Berkeley, I’m often doing some combination of the two. And while C. S. Lewis is quoted as much as any other writer among Christians, it isn’t often that I see others looking to Lewis for wisdom on calling. But I’ve found him to be a helpful guide here, too.
While studying theology at Oxford, I had the privilege of serving as President of the Oxford University C. S. Lewis Society. Nowhere else was my feeling of Imposter Syndrome more acute.
One of the many perks of this role was the opportunity to meet scholars and those who knew Lewis during his life, and to hear firsthand stories of their experience with Lewis. One of the most memorable of those conversations was with Laurence Harwood, C. S. Lewis’s godson.
Laurence was tall and well dressed. He spoke in a calm voice, which peaked to excited high notes when he recalled what it was like to grow up with Lewis visiting his family’s home for dinner.
“I always loved it when Jack came around,” Laurence told us over dinner. “As children, we’d be playing games when he’d come over, and he’d get right down there with us on the floor, at our level. He was genuinely interested in what we were playing, and he’d play with us. Not in a condescending way. He’d always beat us, of course, but we really enjoyed him.”
Before our meal was finished, Laurence shared a difficult experience he faced during his own days as an Oxford student. He told us how, after being struck with double pneumonia, he did not pass his first-year’s preliminary exams, and therefore was not able to return for his second year. He received a letter from Lewis in response to hearing this news.
“At the moment, I can well imagine, everything seems in ruins,” Lewis wrote to Laurence. “That is an illusion.”
Lewis encouraged his godson neither to dwell on this seemingly bad news, nor to consider himself the victim of Oxford’s exam system, but rather to do his best to brush himself off and get on with life. He must trust that this would actually serve to save him much hard work and many years spent traveling in what very well might have been the wrong direction.
Lewis went on to explain that many people, if not most, find this to be one of life’s most difficult periods, struggling from failure to failure, as it had been for him:
Life consisted of applying for jobs which other people got, writing books that no one would publish and giving lectures that no one attended. It all looks hopelessly hopeless, yet the vast majority of us manage to get on somehow and shake down somewhere in the end. You are now going through what most people (at least 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 bumpy bed in a bad hotel. At first you can’t imagine how you can lie on it, much less sleep on it. But presently one finds the right position and finally one is snoring away. By the time one is called it seems a very good bed and one is loath to leave it. (C. S. Lewis, My Godfather, 125)
For those of us standing on this side of Lewis’s remarkable success and achievements, it’s difficult to imagine his experience with self doubt and vocational struggles. And yet, knowing that Lewis struggled here can offer peace to those of us who are yet struggling with disappointment or questions. If nothing else, Lewis’s candid letter is a reminder that faithfulness to the One who calls, rather than to any particular call, is the true measure of success.
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