I suspect I'm not the only one who feels vaguely guilty when I'm not thinking about or talking about or trying in some small, inept way to do something about the financial crisis. Everything else seems secondary. How can we go about our ordinary lives in a time like this?
Some of the most helpful answers I've heard come, as is so often the case, from C.S. Lewis. Speaking to university students at the height of World War II in an essay called "Learning in War-Time," he asked how they could continue studying "when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance?" Lewis points out that, because times are never truly "normal," if we took the assumption that we should stop our ordinary activities when things are amiss to its logical conclusion, we would never engage in ordinary activities.
He then argues that the seemingly frivolous activities in which we engage are part of what makes us different from animals: people "propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache: it is our nature."
Continuing with these activities not only is appropriate and natural, he suggests. It also is an act of humility before God. The "appetite" for knowledge and beauty "exists in the human mind," he says, "and God makes no appetite in vain. We can therefore pursue knowledge as such, and beauty, as such, in the sure confidence that by so doing we are either advancing the vision of God ourselves or indirectly helping others to do so. Humility, no less than the appetite, encourages us to concentrate simply on the honor or the beauty, not too much concerning ourselves with their ultimate relevance to the vision of God. That relevance may not be intended for us but for our betters- men who come after and find the spiritual significance of what we dug out in blind and humble obedience to our vocation."
Lewis focused especially on the scholarly life, but surely the same principles apply to each of us, whatever our vocation may be. This doesn't mean (and Lewis speaks to this too) that crisis does not call for special contributions or sacrifices. A willingness to sacrifice is an important responsibility for each of us. This is why the non-answers both McCain and Obama gave at the debate Tuesday night to the question about what sacrifices Americans face in the weeks ahead were so disappointing.
But for many of us, and perhaps for most of us most of the time, the best thing we can do is simply to keep doing what we're doing; and to do the best we possibly can at whatever our vocation happens to be.