Rereading The Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Three

One of my favorite things about C. S. Lewis is how pragmatic his ethics tend to be, in that his advice on being better person is less likely to be “dedicate an additional hour to daily prayer and meditation” than “make it a habit to hold the door for the person behind you, even if you’re in a hurry.” This chapter is all about that. Or rather, it’s all about the inverse of that.

Chapter three is about The Patient and his mother. Unlike the first two, there are no heaven or hell consequences at stake. The demons just want to make a poor relationship worse, because in their world bad relationships are good (I should mention that unreliable narrator plays heavily here, and there’s no way to know how bad the dynamic really is). Screwtape has four strategies, although he cheats a bit in that division, as the first is more a general principle which is applicable to the remaining three. That principle is to keep The Patient absorbed in meta-thought, thinking thoughts that feel holy and then thinking about how holy those thoughts were, measuring his own improvement by how improved his thoughts seem to be, while ignoring whether or not his behavior has changed. He should be kept ignorant of the flaws that are obvious to everyone else, while congratulating himself on superior self-knowledge, which, Screwtape says, is much easier than it sounds.

His second strategy, after the general principle, is to make The Patient pray for his mother’s soul, as much as possible, and not for her health or well-being or any of her actual needs. This way, his prayers become just another gripe session, masked in spiritual language. Screwtape states that by dwelling on her worst traits, or the traits he perceives as her worst, his image of her will become distorted until “he will, in some degree, be praying for an imaginary person…  I have had patients of my own so well in hand that they could be turned at a moment’s notice from impassioned prayer for a wife or son’s ‘soul’ to beating or insulting the real wife or son without a qualm.”

His third strategy is to make The Patient keenly aware of all her habits that irritate him, and assume she knows about every one and does them on purpose. He should be kept from suspecting he might have habits that are equally annoying to her. Along similar lines, the fourth strategy is to encourage him to read subtexts into her tone of voice and take offense at them, while keeping him from suspecting that she might do the same thing with him. Everybody does this. Everybody sees other people do it, everybody knows what’s going on, and yet, in the moment, we all finds ourselves assuming that the way somebody else raised their voice might as well have been an observation that our momma beeps when she backs up, while our own facial musculature can’t possibly have replied anything about their mothers, planets and relative gravity fluctuations. The worldview of the vast majority of humans paints a picture of a sea of drama, agenda and innuendo, where they stand alone on a rock of clear communication and innocent intention.

The tricky thing about reading the Screwtape Letters is that Lewis never offers solutions or alternative behaviors. He just points out bad habits everyone has, and leaves it up to us to decide what to do about them. He always said that the book was incomplete, and that there should be a corresponding book showing the shoulder angel’s side of the story, but that he did not think he was up to writing that one. Now that he’s laid out how easily we sabotage our own relationships, how do we avoid doing that? Do we presume good intention at all times? That’s absurd, because good intention is not always there.

Good behavior, I think, is a fluid thing, always changing to fit the circumstance. Goodness comes from living in the moment and trying to do the best thing possible for that moment. Sometimes that’s using your words to talk to someone who might not have realized they were bothering you, sometimes that’s teaching yourself to ignore it, and sometimes that’s mending bridges by doing something nice for someone you dislike. Don’t look for your best self inside your own head; your biases will get in the way. Look for chances to be your best self, and take them.

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