Wednesday, November 18, 2009

My Dear Wormwood

The other day I strolled into my neighborhood bookstore. I had been reading a big history and wanted to take a break, so I was browsing for books that I've always wanted to read but just never got around to. I fell upon The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. That's been on the giant to-be-read list for a very long time.

As is often the case when I do this sort of thing, I feel a bit of a fool for not having read the book before. Perhaps if I had read Lewis's wisdom years ago I'd have not fallen into error, as I certainly have. On the other hand, when I look back at myself as a youth, I see a pretty sharp guy who lacked a good deal of the wisdom I now have. I'm not sure that I would have taken the lessons this book offers. I'm not sure I would have understood. As Edmund Wilson said, “No two persons ever read the same book.” I am not the same person I once was, and neither, I hope, are you. I've already added Screwtape to my to-be-read-again list to see what a grayer me gets out of it. I think it's a rather nice gift to my future self.

The book is in an epistolary form, made up of letters from Screwtape, a senior demon with an administrative post in Hell, to his nephew Wormwood, a young tempter on his first assignment trying to secure a soul for his master and from God, here described as the Enemy. The central literary conceit is that old notion that every person has a guardian angel and a demonic tempter at his side, whispering advice. I think this personification of our internal dialog can be a useful tool. It can throw light on what might otherwise be dimly realized thoughts. It can help us be more aware of the cognitive distortions that often lead to needless anguish. And it can help us to focus on our healthier notions, the “advice” of our “guardian angels.” One caveat though: if you find yourself coming to believe that the voices in your head are really other people, seek professional help.

The cartoon image of the devil on the shoulder is usually seen as advising big, flashy sins of the seven deadly or ten commandments variety. That's not what Lewis was interested in here. In one letter Screwtape tells his nephew that he should create a feeling of dim uneasiness and a numbness in the heart of his “patient.” He will then no longer need to provide pleasures as temptations. Rather than focusing on work or sleep or prayer, the man will waste his time doing things he neither likes nor dislikes.
You can make him waste his time not only in conversation he enjoys with people whom he likes, but in conversations with those he cares nothing about on subjects that bore him. You can make him do nothing at all for long periods. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room. All the healthy and outgoing activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at last he may say, as one of my own patients said on his arrival down here, "I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked". The Christians describe the Enemy as one "without whom Nothing is strong". And Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man's best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them, in drumming of fingers and kicking of heels, in whistling tunes that he does not like, or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambition to give them a relish, but which, once chance association has started them, the creature is too weak and fuddled to shake off.
It's the little sins that seem to get most of us. Self destructive habits, mindlessly wasting the little time that we have, not pursuing real happiness, not being about our work, not doing what we know to be healthy, that's what destroys us. It separates us from God, Lewis says. Our own little tempters don't need to counsel violence when despair will do. If we can't be separated from religion, we can at least be separated from God by focusing our minds on how superior we are as Christians. The Enemy would rather have us focusing on mere Christianity and selfless love of others. According to Screwtape:
The Enemy wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if hit had been done by another. The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favour that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbour's talents—or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. He wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognize all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things.
I don't want to leave you with the impression that the book is a collection of nothing but profound insights. It is a form of novel; it tells a story, cleverly and with some humor. Sometimes Lewis uses Screwtape to comment on matters regarding England and her Church, but most often he is writing about things that apply to the universal human condition. I'm already looking forward to reading it again.

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