“The atomic bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.”
I burst into tears over this George Orwell quote in the bookstore the other day. Let me explain why.
If you know me at all, you know I was crushed over the lack of eclipse viewing on this side of the planet. Crushed. I first started reading about the eclipse in science magazines about a year and a half ago, when I realized with sadness that I would not be able to see it, even though totality was passing very close by my hometown.
As we edged ever closer to the eclipse date, and people became more and more excited, I became sadder and sadder. I would wake up every morning thinking about what I was missing and imagining in my mind’s eye what it would be like to experience that kind of natural reversal. I hear you receive spiritual and philosophical insights during a total eclipse that you rarely get in life apart from extreme grief and loss. I hear that you feel at one with humanity and at one with the solar system. Whether you believe in God or not.
But here’s the thing: I already feel at one with the solar system on a regular basis. Every time I look up at the moon, no matter where it is in its waxing or waning, I imagine where I am in relation to it and to the sun and to the rest of the planets, and I get this enormous sense of awe and wonder. I experience more awe and wonder when I catch a glimpse of a planet with the naked eye. I even get a thrill from ordinary everyday sunsets and ordinary everyday cloud-dotted skies. Understanding the science behind each of these sights does not in the least diminish their wonder for me.
So to miss out on an event that causes people who don’t normally care all that much about the sky to shudder with shock and awe, felt like a devastating loss. I collect those moments of wonder and awe in my life and, like Mary, ponder them in my heart. I store them in the long-term memory of my soul. I am a glory-chaser, and this month I felt I was missing out on something glorious that all my countrymen were going to witness (though I know the descriptor “all” is not entirely accurate here). I have really had to grieve this loss as one of many losses on both sides of the Pacific over the last 6 years.
Then today I found myself at the local bookstore with my kids, perusing the magazine rack. It’s a sort of Saturday morning tradition for us. Magazines are too expensive to buy here, so we just stand around reading articles about space and geography. I was reading an article about that infamous eclipse when I came across these words by George Orwell. They brought to mind parallel (and prescient) thoughts from C.S. Lewis, in his 1948 essay entitled “On Living in an Atomic Age”:
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 – anaesthetics; 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.
I had read Lewis’s words earlier this month and been sobered, my mind plumbed back into alignment. Orwell’s words were likewise so true that they brought tears to my eyes. Our world is in chaos. We all know this. Globally and locally, everyone you and I meet can see the chaos in both their own country and the countries of others. There’s so much fear, fear from all sides and of far too many things.
But. There is awe and wonder that can outweigh the fear. There is truth that can outweigh the lies. And there are things we can be sure of, the chief of which is that we do not control the heavens. We do not direct their footsteps. We can predict them, and we can describe them — though they lose none of their awe-inspiring power when we do — but we cannot direct them. That is a task only God can manage. We can merely watch — or not.
So let us rest in God, in His creative power and in His unfathomable goodness. Let us take comfort in His nearness and in His grandeur, in His wisdom and in His foolishness. Let us walk with Him, through our tears and through our joys, through our fears and through our distracted and distractible daily lives. And let us remember that, regardless of how we live and regardless of how we die, God is God and we are not, and neither is any world leader who appears to be wresting power from Him — for no one can rob Him of His glory.
I originally published this on Facebook. On one of the FB shares a friend of a friend (someone I don’t know) commented: “When asked what he would like to be found doing by Jesus on Jesus’s return, Luther said, ‘Planting a tree.’ I think the reason is the same as your quote.” That story was just too good not to pass on to you here.