Brain Pickings

C.S. Lewis’s Advice to Children on Duty and the Only Three Things Worth Worrying About


“Most of us need the crutch at times; but of course it’s idiotic to use the crutch when our own legs can do the journey on their own!”

As if one needed another reason to have a soft spot for beloved writer C. S. Lewis: He received many fan letters from children, mostly after the publication of The Chronicles of Narnia, and answered many of them. In fact, he didn’t just answer them; his correspondence with young readers, collected in C. S. Lewis: Letters to Children (public library | IndieBound), was full of tremendous generosity, compassion, and wholeheartedness — and subtle, timeless wisdom.

In a letter to a girl named Sarah, dated April 3, 1949, Lewis writes:

Remember that there are only three kinds of things anyone need ever do. (1) Things we ought to do (2) Things we’ve got to do (3) Things we like doing. I say this because some people seem to spend so much of their time doing things for none of the three reasons, things like reading books they don’t like because other people read them. Things you ought to do are things like doing one’s school work or being nice to people. Things one has got to do are things like dressing and undressing, or household shopping. Things one likes doing — but of course I don’t know what you like. Perhaps you’ll write and tell me one day.

Nearly a decade later, in a letter dated July 18, 1957, Lewis revisit the subject of duty’s false deities with another little girl, Joan:

A perfect man wd. never act from a sense of duty; he’d always want the right thing more than the wrong one. Duty is only a substitute for love (of God and of other people), like a crutch, which is a substitute for a leg. Most of us need the crutch at times; but of course it’s idiotic to use the crutch when our own legs (or own loves, tastes, habits etc) can do the journey on their own!

(It must be the week for sage advice to little girls from cultural icons.)

This caution against duty eclipsing your authentic drives is a fine addition to the discussion of how to find your purpose and do what you love.

Also in C. S. Lewis: Letters to Children you’ll find Lewis’s 5 tips on writing, originally intended for little ones, but surprisingly useful — needed, even — reminders for any grown-up writer.

Letters of Note

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