How are we to live in uncertain times?

 It is the time of the coronavirus, and the situation changes from day to day. As we write this, people are practicing social distancing and self-isolation. Our stores are closed for the foreseeable future. As a society, we are in uncharted waters. Most of us have never lived through a time of war or mass sacrifice.

But uncertainty is not new to the human condition. In the 1950s, people were consumed by the fear of the atomic bomb. There is a parallel to today—how do we conduct ourselves in times of fear and uncertainty? The writer C.S. Lewis wrote a beautiful essay on the topic that speaks to us today.

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”
In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.
This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

 

— “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays