Rereading The Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Four

In part two I talked about a chapter that was hard for me to say anything about, because it was too religion centric for me to get much out of it, but not anti-atheist enough for me to feel it was fair to criticize it. I solved that problem by going meta; writing about the struggle to react itself, as my reaction to the chapter. I feel I’ve said all I need to see on that topic, and so I will skip the next two chapters, which are along the same lines.

In one of the chapters I skipped, we found out a war broke out in the human world. It’s probably WWII, but that’s not important to the demons. What is important, as far as Screwtape is concerned, is how they can use the war against the Patient. That is the focus of chapter six.

“I am delighted to hear that your patient’s age and profession make it possible, but by no means certain, that he will be called up for military service. We want him to be in the maximum uncertainty, so that his mind will be filled with contradictory pictures of the future, every one of which arouses hope or fear.”

I relate to this chapter so much.

I am anxious. I am tempted to write that I have an anxiety disorder, but I won’t do that for two reasons. The first one is that I don’t have a formal diagnosis, but the second, and more important, one is that sometime around age 20 I turned a corner and it ceased to be something that stopped me from doing things I needed to do. The difference between a psychological disorder and a personal quirk is that one interferes with your daily life and the other is just a part of it. It’s one of my frustrations that people look at descriptions of mental disorders and say, “well I do that, I know lots of people who do that, and I don’t think we’re crazy, so mental disorders are full of crap.” There aren’t tidy boxes, there’s a spectrum of a variety of behaviors and patterns of thinking, and people travel back and forth across it all the time. When I was a teenager, I think it’s fair to say I was firmly on the chronically disordered end of the anxiety spectrum. For years, I physically could not answer the phone. Driving lessons gave me panic attacks. Cute boys were impossible to talk to, but so were cashiers at grocery stores.

“It is your business to see that the patient never thinks of the present fear as his appointed cross but only of the things he is afraid of. Let him regard them as crosses: let him forget that, since they are incompatible, they cannot all happen to him, and let him try to practice fortitude and patience to them all in advance.”

The cruel trick of fear is that it is not satisfied with you living through one bad thing once. It thinks you should live through it for as long as possible beforehand, and through everything else that might happen. In real life, one bad thing happening means that, at the very least, some other equally bad thing hasn’t happened. In fear, all the bad things are happening, all together.

“An important spiritual law is here involved. I have explained to you that you can weaken his prayers by diverting his attention from the Enemy Himself to his own states of mind about the Enemy. On the other hand fear becomes easier to master when the patient’s mind is diverted from the thing feared to the fear itself.”

 

Fear is a thorny little bitch. It turns the skin into a pincushion, folds the mind into a pretzel where all thoughts are just contradictory questions screaming at each other. It works the body into a frenzy that paralyzes. Still, it is easier to deal with those sensations directly than the worries it conjures. Fear is confined to my own body. The worries are an infinite multiverse. That was the secret I needed to learn before I could help myself. No, sadly therapists weren’t a part of that journey.

They could have helped, but luckily I’m a good self-educator. I read a lot about anxiety and tried a lot of tricks before I started finding things that worked. Now, anxiety is something perpetually present in my life, but I understand it. It’s like a game of chess that I’m compelled to play every day. On the one hand, sometimes the program I play against takes a piece, but on the other hand, I am unlimited in my ability to learn from my mistakes, while it has maxed out it’s difficulty rating. In the long run, I usually win.

“One can therefore formulate the general rule; in all activities of mind which favor our cause, encourage the patient to be un-selfconscious and to concentrate on the object, but in all activities favorable to the Enemy bend his mind back on itself.”

One thing I love about this chapter is that, even through the voice of Screwtape, Lewis does not condemn the feeling of fear. It is neither good nor bad, just a normal human reaction that he, in his religious view, labels a cross to bear. It is not even that dwelling on the fear or being controlled by it is a sin. Screwtape never suggests that making the Patient fearful will, in and of itself, corrupt him and make him unfit for heaven. His aim instead is to put the Patient in a “favorable mindset,” which I assume means to muddle his understanding of it so he loses control of how he reacts, and it’s in the reactions that sin lie.

In concluding that, I am relying somewhat on my own experience. I don’t think Lewis was thinking about anxiety disorders when he wrote this, but I thought about how, when I was at my most anxious, I did a terrible job of taking care of myself. I suppose you could regard that as a kind of sin, although this is something I dislike about the religious mindset. I don’t think it’s productive to think of actions as sinful, at least the way I’ve always understood sin. Again, it focuses the attention away from the cause of a wrong action, towards the wrong action itself. It can create feelings of shame that will be reinforced whenever the same emotions lead to the same result. It’s better to understand the initial cause, because that can lead to actual steps towards change. Admit fault, and ask forgiveness, by all means, but also understand that you, like anyone, do things for reasons. Know those reasons, and you can then try, by incremental steps, to change habits, and remake a better version of you.

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