Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Eight


Chapters ten through thirteen chronicle a brief arc in The Patient’s growth. He makes some new friends, as I mentioned previously, and seems to be on a downward path on account of being in the vicinity of non-believers, but slips through Wormwood’s grasp and reaffirms his faith. The turning point of The Patient’s conversion is a moment of true pleasure; he reads a book he really enjoys and then goes for a walk in a place he really likes. Somehow, this leads to a transcendent moment of religious communion, which utterly undoes Wormwood’s work. Throughout this arc, Screwtape has hammered again and again at the point that pleasure is not a tool of theirs, but of Gods, and he is outraged that Wormwood has ignored the warnings.

In chapter thirteen, he clarifies that what is dangerous to their work is real sensation. They want to lure humans into a state of dullness with the wrong kinds of pleasures; ones that are rooted in a desire to be popular or to be powerful or to be seen to like the “right” kind of things. Real pleasures are a kind of antidote against the superficial pleasures they trade in. “You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favour of the ‘best’ people, the ‘right’ food, the ‘important’ books. I have known a human defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for liver and onions.” Furthermore, real pleasures root people in who they are really meant to be, which means allowing humans to indulge real pleasures plays directly into God’s hand. “Remember always, that He really likes the little vermin, and sets an absurd value on the distinctness of every one of them… Hence, while He is delighted to see them sacrificing even their innocent wills to His, He hates to see them drifting away from their own nature for any other reason. And we should always encourage them to do so. The deepest likings and impulses of any man are the raw material, the starting-point, with which the Enemy has furnished him.”

This is a cool idea that makes a kind of intuitive sense. My rational mind is frustrated by my inability to explain the exact mechanism that this works by, but the times that I have felt most kind, most honest, and most like the person I want to be all the time have also been the times I am most genuinely happy. The reverse is often true. Trying to like things because of the people whose approval I’ll win or because I want to be the kind of person who likes this and that, doesn’t tend to bring out my best.

If I were to venture at a potential explanation for how this works, I think there are two things behind that correlation. For one thing, being happy gives us spoons, and the spoons can then be spent on being generous and genuine and empathetic. Denying ourselves the things that really make us happy and trying to be someone we aren’t costs spoons. For another, doing something we really like tends to bring us into contact with people who really like that same thing, and community is a powerful source of positive good, for ourselves and the world at large. I think trying to fit into communities we don’t truly enjoy, that we are only using to win some sort of points, does not tend to produce the kinds of communities that put good things into the world.

So while I dislike (and disagree with) the threat of eternal damnation coming from having a few dinners with an atheist couple, I wholeheartedly like and agree with the idea that doing things we truly enjoy is good for our souls. I also think it’s a great contrast to a stereotypical attitude of religion, particularly as it is practiced in America; the Puritan-derived attitude of “enjoyment is bad because its frivolous and pointless and distracting from God.” I say stereotypical because I have met no shortage of Christians who are the furthest thing in the world from Puritans, and I also think I should point out that the pleasure-equals-sin is a mentality co-opted frequently by the secular world. I had a conversation with my boyfriend recently, and I was trying to come up with a counterexample for our culture’s admonishment of particular kinds of sex. “Wouldn’t it be ridiculous if everyone who enjoyed blank were demonized?” I tried to say, but nothing actually worked. There are whole ad campaigns hinged around making people feel bad for enjoying food. You can only like dancing if you’re a girl. Fashion is for shallow people. The most neutral hobby I could think of, stamp collecting, is for nerds and geeks. And isn’t the whole use of geek as a slur essentially just insulting someone for liking something more than you think they should? Every pleasure is commonly demonized, when it is enjoyed too much or outside of certain parameters, and I wish I could say those parameters are simply  “when it becomes measurably, objectively harmful to you or someone else.” I can’t, because they aren’t.

Which brings me to the sole issue I have with his conclusion. It seems obvious to me that the things a person most genuinely enjoys are going to be subjective and personal. One person loves gourmet food, while another is happy with Kraft mac and cheese but loves rock music. For the former, making an elegant meal for a dinner party is going to be the genuine pleasure that brings out the best in them, and the latter should maybe start a band instead. All the pleasures Lewis mentions are the same sort of thing; very homey and domestic and congruent with a simple English life. It might be a coincidence, but it seems to me, based on other writings of his, that he does think of certain pleasures as being the right ones and others as the wrong ones. I’m fairly certain that if I made a list of things that make me feel wonderful and happy, he would take an issue with, for example, anything I do with my boyfriend. It doesn’t work that way. You can’t say, “go be yourself” and then look down your nose at anyone whose real self isn’t you.

When I was thinking of times I was trying to like things because I thought they were the right things to like, I was thinking of my Christian days. I was thinking of Christian rock and movies I watched not because they were good, but because they didn’t have any sex or swearing. I was thinking of the days when I judged people for showing cleavage. Then one day I made friends with a girl who openly liked gothy, punky, alternative things and talked about sex and supported her LGBT friends. I saw something in her that I wanted to be, and I started doing things that reflected who I felt I was, rather than who I thought I should be. The first step was dying my hair with cobalt blue. I sincerely doubt Lewis would have approved.

Last year I worked with a teacher who liked the Kardashians. I’m not sure whether she liked them as people or just liked the voyeurism of looking in on their lives via TV and tabloids. She dyed her hair and manicured her nails and talked like someone who reads Cosmo without a trace of irony. We worked together with a learning disabled six year old boy who was impulsive, rude and disobedient. He came from a classic broken homes no role models kind of situation. He drove her up the wall, but she never gave up. She met with every expert on tough special needs kids in the building, and tried every idea we came up with. I’ve known teachers who would have hit their limit, decided he was a bad kid and not have spoken a kind word to him the rest of the year. That was never on the table with her. She worked with him all year, and moved up to second grade the next year to keep on working with him. Around November I asked some people about him, and they all said the same thing; he turned around. The biggest trouble anyone’s had with him since the start of the year is getting him to remember his glasses. He’s finally succeeding in school and making friends.

What I’m saying is, I’ve thought some pretty judgmental things about the sorts of people who dig the Kardashians, but where is it written that I get to judge what she likes? If that’s what she needed to destress, to find the energy to change a little boy’s life, then I say to her, enjoy!


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