We all need a little more “sense and sensibility” in our lives these days.
The title of the much-beloved first novel by Jane Austen takes on new significance in the age of COVID-19. We need more of Austen—her wit and wisdom—right now. But we also need the qualities of character that the title of her novel names. There’s nothing quite like a global pandemic—with its social distancing, self-quarantine, inconveniences, illnesses, and even deaths—to awaken us to the necessity of both sense and sensibility.
When Austen published Sense and Sensibility in 1811, these terms—“sense” and “sensibility”—referred roughly to what we mean today by “reason” and “emotion.” Then, as now, the two are often seen wrongly as being in opposition to one another. This view owes partly to the fact that the modern age that began in the seventeenth century is defined by the reign of reason or sense. Around the time that Austen was writing, more than a century after the Enlightenment, a reaction against reason emerged with the Romantic Movement. Romanticism exalted ‘sensibility’ in the form of emotion, imagination, and aesthetic experience. We’ve been toggling back and forth between the two ever since. In our individual lives, cultures, and church traditions, we tend to favor one at the expense of the other.
But Austen was wise in knowing that human excellence and social order require a balance of both reason and emotion, of sense and sensibility. In the novel, she embodies each quality in one of the two main characters, sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. Elinor, the eldest daughter, is all reason and sense, whether in matters of family relations, domestic economy, social life, or love. Marianne, in contrast, is all feeling and romanticism, a perfect figure of today’s popular philosophy of “following your heart.”
The story shows how each sister needs some of what the other has. When Elinor faces heartbreak with almost inhuman stoicism, Marianne rightly chides her, “Always resignation and acceptance. Always prudence and honour and duty. Elinor, where is your heart?”
By contrast, Marianne, who is naïve and passionate to a dangerous point, puts her heart, her family, and even her very life at risk with her impulsive decisions. After coming close to death because of her foolish actions, Marianne finally confesses to Elinor that she sees her error: “I saw that my own feelings had prepared my sufferings, and that my want of fortitude under them had almost led me to the grave.”
Elinor, too, sees the folly of her ways and by the end is able to express her deep love for the man who has her heart. In other words, each sister comes to see the value of the other’s main character quality.
It might not seem like we can learn much from a novel about how to navigate a pandemic, especially one centered on domestic scenes of romantic despairs and triumphs, sisterly affections, and family strife. But, as I explain in my new introduction to the novel, Austen’s brilliance is in showing that the staging ground for character is not the extraordinary times but rather the ordinary ones. Crises, when they come, then offer many tests of our character. One of theses tests is how we balance the demands of reason and emotion. In other words, the sense and sensibility we display in times of crisis begin in the drama of the mundane.
This balance is necessary for our character as individuals and as a church body.
Because we are made in the image of God, we manifest his character in his reasonable nature as well as in his emotional capacity. The God named in Genesis 1 is called the Word in John 1:1. The Greek term used here is “logos,” from which we get the word “logical.” This term denotes all that is rational and reasonable, including the very order of the universe and all of creation. The ability we have to reason, to have sense, is an expression of the image of God in us.
Throughout Scripture, we are called to exercise this ability: “Come, let us reason together,” the writer of Isaiah exhorts (Is. 1:18). Likewise, we are urged by Paul in Second Corinthians 10:5 to use the power of reasoning required to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God.”
We see similar evidence in the Bible for both human and divine ‘sensibilities.’ Arguably, the Incarnation—the Word becoming flesh—is itself an expression of emotion. One of the original meanings of emotion is “a physical disturbance,” a bodily response or movement. As God in a human body, Jesus is in fact a physical presence, a presence that did (and does) indeed disturb the physical universe, as well as the spiritual reality behind it.
It’s significant, too, that the scriptures record many emotions of Jesus. He felt sadness and grief—and even wept—at the death of Lazarus. He displayed anger when he turned over the tables in the temple and when he denounced the Pharisees as “snakes” and a “brood of vipers.” And many, many times, Scripture records Jesus’ first response to human pain and suffering as that of feeling compassion.
The evidence is clear: To be human is to think and to feel, and to deny one at the expense of the other is to distort the very image of God. But what, exactly, does that look like during our current crisis?
The common sense, short term precautions we are all taking to stem the spread of the virus—frequent hand washing, social distancing, self-quarantining, schooling and working at home or online—are reasonable steps for our circumstances. Two weeks ago, I thought it was reasonable to go to the gym and simply be extra cautious about sanitation. A week later, I stopped going. And now my gym, like most others, is closed. Even harder than making decisions for myself is helping my parents—who are elderly but healthy and mobile—adjust to these current (hopefully temporary) threats to their wellbeing.
As the circumstances weekly and daily change, whether for better or worse, what is reasonable also changes. So, too, will our emotions fluctuate. We will feel anxiety, fear, loneliness, and anger about what we think we might face—and what some of us are facing. But by God’s grace we will also feel compassion, along with love, joy, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
The Bible speaks of both our rational and emotional needs during times of crisis. Proverbs 1:33 tells us that “whoever listens to me will dwell secure and will be at ease, without dread of disaster.” Security is an external state measured by reason and sense; ease describes an internal condition, a feeling or sensibility. God ministers to both, and calls us to do the same.
Karen Swallow Prior is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More, and On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books. She will begin this fall as research professor of English, Christianity, and culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.