Why is C.S. Lewis so great? It might prove difficult to answer this question in one blog post, but here’s to the ol’ college try. It helps that I get to focus on one work, Surprised by Joy. And there is really no other book by Lewis that I would rather write about.
When the question, “Has a book ever changed your life?” appeared in my Twitter feed, I had to answer; and the book that stood out above the rest in my mind was Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised by Joy. I read this book during my junior year in college, and it profoundly shaped my thinking and living. And I have to say, I really do like it even better than the Narnia series, and some of Lewis’s other more “popular” works. To really understand Lewis’s genius, along with the warm complexity of his heart and personality, one must read Surprised by Joy.
This work is an autobiography, or as Lewis entitled it, “The Shape of my Early Life.” But, as he states in his Preface, it “gets less like a general autobiography as it goes on.” The central subject of Lewis’s autobiography isn’t Lewis himself, and he even lets us know a time or two that he is omitting significant and potentially interesting parts of his story, because they do not pertain to his subject. Lewis writes his autobiography for the sake of exploring what he calls “Joy.” In chapter 1, “The First Years,” Lewis lets us know that “The central story of my life is about nothing else.”
Lewis begins his story with his childhood, and his early impressions of his family. He includes the importance of his parents’ contrasting personalities, and the friendship he had with his brother, Warren. Lewis narrates the death of his mother from Cancer, Warren’s transition to boarding school and Lewis’s own boarding school experiences a few years later. All these episodes brought intense grief and suffering into Lewis’s life in different forms, but he focuses on them in as much as they led him to long for Joy.
Lewis’s “boyhood” brought much more suffering than the “prosaic happiness” that characterized his early childhood. But Lewis’s boyhood also caused him “poignant nostalgia” when he looked back on it, which is something his childhood did not do. He tells us that it was because “[i]t is not settled happiness but momentary joy that glorifies the past.” In the midst of trial and suffering, moments of desire began to break in unexpectedly, surprising Lewis (hence the book’s title). He didn’t know it early on, but these moments of longing and desire were for Joy – an experience of perfected, unspoiled goodness – that humans catch glimpses of in certain fleeting moments.
This “Joy” that Lewis is so concerned about is the really important connection for me, and why I love this book so much. We all experience this longing for Joy when we encounter true goodness and beauty, and that moment of encounter ends. This can happen in a moment with a special person that we wish would last longer, or in a vacation that ends too soon, or whenever we desire something in life to be what it isn’t and that we know it should be. Lewis puts it like this: “[The desire for Joy] is…an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again.”
In 1931, C.S. Lewis converted from atheism to full-blown Christianity (and not just theism, which was an earlier step in his conversion). Finally, Lewis was able to make much fuller sense of why mankind is so troubled with this unfulfilled desire. Allow me to share one longer quote from the last chapter: “But what, in conclusion, of Joy? for that, after all, is what the story has mainly been about….I now know that the experience, considered as a state of my own mind, had never had the kind of importance I once gave it. It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer. While that other was in doubt, the pointer naturally loomed large in my thoughts. When we are lost in the woods the sight of a signpost is a great matter. He who first sees it cries, ‘Look!’ The whole party gathers round and stares. But when we have found the road and are passing signposts every few miles, we shall not stop and stare. They will encourage us and we shall be grateful to the authority that set them up. But we shall not stop and stare, or not much; not on this road, though their pillars are of silver and their lettering of gold.”
I read Surprised by Joy in my college years, and it’s Lewis’s philosophy of Joy that continues to infuse itself into every part of who I am, and is why I keep coming back to this book. And I’m leaving out so many great parts of the story: the lively places Lewis brings to life with his incredible narration, his experiences with combat in WWI, and his conversations with J.R.R. Tolkien among others. During those important years of my life, while looking ahead to the looming decisions of career and marriage, as well as looking back with regret at past mistakes, Lewis helped me see that all our moments of desire that end up diverted or unfulfilled simply serve as signposts. He helped me, and helps me still to found my life on hope that’s very real and solid. And to see purposes behind disappointment and suffering that are bigger than me. Lewis said in another work “we read to know we are not alone.” And in Lewis I can sincerely say I’ve found a great friend.