As Michael Hanby once argued, one is bound to find a hopelessness and jumbled fragmentation beneath “the excesses of consumer society and the sense of helplessness that leads an increasing number of citizens . . . to despair of social and political involvement.” The political and historical hopelessness that Goldberg notes is closely related to the decadent indulgence that Hess observes and enjoys. However much one may pine for unity, commonality, and the common good, these objectives are far beyond the imagination, will, and character of a people that has been formed by the ideals that Hess reports: “Contemplation and prayer? Oh, forget that. Go for the squid-ink risotto instead.”
Many of our fellow citizens do not appear to know what life is for. They have never learned the pathways or prescription for a meaningful, worthy life, even though they know very well the prescription for success. In one widely-noted essay, William Deresiewicz comments that his Ivy League students were driven, accomplished, talented, and disciplined; but “look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation. . . . The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential.”
The spread of this sense of ambition without purpose in part accounts for the popularity of figures like Jordan Peterson. Many students have told me they read and appreciate his 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos because they have no other sources of rules for living well. (“Don’t you have a grandmother?” is my usual confused response.) Similarly, the attraction of movements like TheSchool of Life or TED―especially among the well-credentialed but confused―comes from their promise of wisdom for living rather than of mere techniques of success. Even then, the impression they give is that a good life is a commodity available for purchase rather than a long and difficult drama that requires reflection, self-mastery, and maybe, just maybe, a bit of suffering. A brief glance at the School of Life store, with its kitschy games, cute notebooks, and “Optimist/Pessimist” drinking glasses tempts one to quote Don Colachowith grudging admiration: “The modern world will not be punished. It is the punishment.”
That is, the formation that our present time and place impart, the relentless catechesis of contemporary culture, punishes our young. And the punishment is often especially harsh on the most “successful”―those who have best absorbed contemporary culture’s “schooling,” from which they learned how to succeed but not how to lead a worthwhile life.
Can a person be successful if one goes unnoticed? We can look to C.S. Lewis’s Sarah Smith as a way to answer definitively, “Yes.” It’s possible, and maybe even preferable, to cultivate virtue and live a good life in a quiet way, and to seek out precisely those sorts of people for friendship—because when you encounter them, you encounter a way of living that’s genuinely “out of this world.” C.S. Lewis, through the character of Sarah Smith, shows us the fruits of that sort of life:
First came bright Spirits, not the Spirits of men, who danced and scattered flowers. Then, on the left and right, at each side of the forest avenue, came youthful shapes, boys upon one hand, and girls upon the other. If I could remember their singing and write down the notes, no man who read that score would ever grow sick or old. Between them went musicians: and after these a lady in whose honour all this was being done.
I cannot now remember whether she was naked or clothed. If she were naked, then it must have been the almost visible penumbra of her courtesy and joy which produces in my memory the illusion of a great and shining train that followed her across the happy grass. If she were clothed, then the illusion of nakedness is doubtless due to the clarity with which her inmost spirit shone through the clothes. For clothes in that country are not a disguise: the spiritual body lives along each thread and turns them into living organs. A robe or a crown is there as much one of the wearer’s features as a lip or an eye.
But I have forgotten. And only partly do I remember the unbearable beauty of her face.
“Is it?…is it?” I whispered to my guide.
“Not at all,” said he. “It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.”
“She seems to be…well, a person of particular importance?”
“Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.”
“And who are these gigantic people…look! They’re like emeralds…who are dancing and throwing flowers before here?”
“Haven’t ye read your Milton? A thousand liveried angels lackey her.”
“And who are all these young men and women on each side?”
“They are her sons and daughters.”
“She must have had a very large family, Sir.”
“Every young man or boy that met her became her son – even if it was only the boy that brought the meat to her back door. Every girl that met her was her daughter.”
“Isn’t that a bit hard on their own parents?”
“No. There are those that steal other people’s children. But her motherhood was of a different kind. Those on whom it fell went back to their natural parents loving them more. Few men looked on her without becoming, in a certain fashion, her lovers. But it was the kind of love that made them not less true, but truer, to their own wives.”
“And how…but hullo! What are all these animals? A cat-two cats-dozens of cats. And all those dogs…why, I can’t count them. And the birds. And the horses.”
“They are her beasts.”
“Did she keep a sort of zoo? I mean, this is a bit too much.”
“Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love. In her they became themselves. And now the abundance of life she has in Christ from the Father flows over into them.”
I looked at my Teacher in amazement.
“Yes,” he said. “It is like when you throw a stone into a pool, and the concentric waves spread out further and further. Who knows where it will end? Redeemed humanity is still young, it has hardly come to its full strength. But already there is joy enough int the little finger of a great saint such as yonder lady to waken all the dead things of the universe into life.”