Joy in the World

Earlier this month, The Guardian newspaper reported that a previously unknown letter by C S Lewis was about to go under the hammer. You can read the report here.

I’ve been meaning to write about the letter ever since I read the article but Christmas seems the most apposite time to finally do so as in it, Lewis talks about his concept of joy.

Joy to him was not synonymous with happiness or pleasure. It was something deeper; something that, though it happened in us, did not come from us. Here is how Lewis describes its effect.

“It jumps under ones ribs and tickles down one’s back and makes one forget meals and keeps one (delightedly) sleepless o’nights. It shocks one awake when the other puts one to sleep. My private table is one second of joy [that] is worth 12 hours of Pleasure.”

The Guardian reports that the letter, which is dated 19th August 1945*, was addressed to a Mrs Ellis. Her full identify, however, is unknown as the letter – found inside a secondhand copy of The Problem of Pain – was found without its envelope.

As well as describing what joy does, Lewis also makes the at-first-glance-surprising statement that ‘”the physical sensations of joy and misery are in my case identical”‘.

But perhaps the only thing I should be surprised at is that Lewis writes as if he is unique in finding the ‘physical sensations of joy and misery’ to be identical. After all, there are many people experience pleasure in pain – the very physically active, for example, or those who enjoy kinky activity in their bedroom.

Lewis goes on to say that ‘”just the same thing happens inside me on getting the good or bad news”‘. I have to admit I find this statement hard to relate to. When one receives good news, doesn’t one’s heart jump? Whereas if the news is bad, one’s heart falls? Two different actions, surely. However, as he is talking about something he has experienced, we have to take his statement seriously.

Three years after writing to Mrs Ellis, Lewis published his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy. Joy here is (the action of) God. Maybe the physical sensations that accompanied good and bad news were the same because Lewis was receiving God’s grace?

* If I remember correctly, Lewis did not always date his letters so to find it on this one is good news indeed.

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