The Emptiness of Modern Life and the Three Ships of C.S. Lewis

The unexamined life often comes with a sort of frenzy. There was a time, around when I first started driving, that my car radio and CD player stopped working. It is impressed in my memory because I remember not being able to stand the quiet. In fact, I remember shouting as I drove just so I wouldn’t have to be in a quiet car. Now, looking back, I realize why silence was scary to teenage me. Because in the silence, you are stuck with your thoughts, your conscience, and your God.

And in that quiet, you realize the meaninglessness of life.  If you  stop working for a moment, you may realize that you don’t know why you are working. If you stop entertaining yourself for a second, you may realize that there is a void in your soul that you are trying to fill with distractions. That’s likely why we live in such a busy culture. How much quiet does the average person see in a day? Between work, activities, eating out, hobbies, podcasts, Youtube, the news, and social media; if you find a quiet 20 minutes, you are in the minority.

This frenzy comes from emptiness, and C.S. Lewis has a helpful analogy which, I believe, helps explain this emptiness. Lewis characterized the three facets of morality like the three commands that a fleet of ships needs before it sets out. When a fleet of ships set sail, the captains need to know three things. The first is how to keep the ships from running into each other. The second is that they need to know how to keep their own ships in good working order. Finally, to have a successful voyage, they need to know where they are going. Lewis argues that the three corresponding views of morality are 1) how to keep from hurting one another, 2) keeping the internal workings of each person running well, and 3) to know the ultimate destination of life. (Mere Christianity, p.73)

Now, Lewis argues that modern man is primarily concerned with the first one. I would say that with the new focus on things like health, mindfulness, and meditation, people are beginning to talk about the second as well. But almost no one in our modern world has dusted off the cover of the third. In fact, next time someone asks you what you’ve been thinking about recently, tell them, “the meaning of life.” I guarantee they will think you’re telling a joke.

Peter Kreeft, commenting on Lewis’s illustration, says of the third question, “This is the question of the summum bonum, and no modern philosophers except the existentialists seem even to be interested in this, the greatest of all questions. Perhaps that is why most modern philosophy seems to weak and wimpy, so specialized and elitist, and above all so boring, to ordinary people.” (Three Philosophies of Life, p.17)

This is because for life to be full, people need a destination, a meaning for everything that happens. Victor Frankl, a holocaust survivor, famously said that, “those who have a why to live, can bear with almost any how.” (Man’s Search for Meaning)  And it is the “why” that has been stripped from our society. Consequently, we can handle almost nothing. Our jobs are dreary, our family life is dreary, we only look forward to the next big trip, movie, or experience. Is it strange that we live in what is probably the most comfortable age in human history and yet no one says one pleasant thing about their life? We have become pleasure addicts, pushing more and more of “what’s new” into our arms. And, at some level, we begin to hate ourselves for it. But that’s not a strange impulse. 2000 years ago, Paul, pointing to a world without the resurrection states, “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Corinthians 15:32)  And ever since, that has become the mantra for those without overarching purpose. Eat drink, for tomorrow we die. And then if we wake up the next day? Eat again, drink again, maybe the food will be better.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. If you want to fight, Jesus has a war for you. If you want adventure, Jesus has a mission for you. It won’t be easy, just the opposite. But one thing it won’t be is listless. The answer to the malaise of modern life is to be swept up into a  mission a thousand times bigger than yourself. Don’t just repair your ship and try not to bump into others. Go somewhere.