Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Ten

Chapter Fifteen continues Chapter Fourteen’s return to advice that I think rocks, regardless of what religious affiliation you belong to. It gets away from the usual concepts of virtues and vices, and instead as it muses on the passage of time and the mortal perspective on it.

“The humans live in time but our Enemy destines them to eternity. He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which our Enemy has of reality as a whole; in it alone freedom and actuality are offered them.”

The demons, by contrast, want humans to dwell on either the past or the future. The past can be useful, as it gets people away from the present, but it also has a reality to it that demons distrust. People who dwell on the past are dwelling on things that really happened. Whether the future itself is a thing that really exists, but has yet to be experienced, or whether it’s unreal until it becomes the present, from a human perspective every thought we can have about the future is speculative and imaginary. Screwtape finds this incredibly useful.

“We want a man hag-ridden by the Future – haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth- ready to break the Enemy’s commands in the Present if by so doing we can make him think he can attain the one or avert the other – dependent for his faith on the success or failure of schemes whose end he will not live to see. We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the Future every real gift which is offered them in the Present.”

In short, Lewis is giving the advice so often given by modern pop psychologists and good living gurus; live in the present and enjoy the moment. It is good advice, as far as it goes, though it is also a bit cliched and impractical to really follow. One of the nice things about this chapter is that it also goes a little deeper into the complexities of following that advice. For one thing, he acknowledges the need to think about the future sometimes.

“To be sure, the Enemy wants men to think of the future too – just so much as is necessary for now planning the acts of justice or charity which will probably be their duty tomorrow. The duty of planning the morrow’s work is today’s duty; though its material is borrowed from the Future, the duty, like all duties, is in the Present.”

For another, he deconstructs the vague nature of the words “living in the present” themselves. Like most platitudes, the phrase might have a correct and healthy interpretation, but it sacrifices clarity for quotability and might be interpreted in ways that do as much harm as good.

“It may describe a process which is really just as much concerned with the Future as anxiety itself. Your man may be untroubled about the Future, not because he is concerned with the Present, but because he has persuaded himself that the Future is going to be agreeable. As long as that is the real course of his tranquillity, his tranquillity will do us good, because it is only piling up more disappointment, and therefore more impatience, for him when his false hopes are dashed.”

I do often hear “live in the present” stated in a way that encourages complacency. It is often paired with ideas about leaving the future to itself, which is advice that is hard to take seriously when our action and inaction really does affect the future. Furthermore, it often comes paired with images of smiling people in pretty dresses looking out at the beach or some such thing, communicating the idea that living in the present always means being happy in the present. Sometimes the present is troubled and unhappy. Sometimes the person who is experiencing the present has depression or anxiety disorders. Being told to be happy now is not helpful when you are sad now. It’s not happiness or sadness in the present that Screwtape cares about, but use or neglect of what the Patient has in the moment. Fear and complacency are both potential allies, but if neither anxiety nor comfort are obstacles to the Patient doing today’s work or enjoying today’s pleasures, they are losing the battle.

This chapter is one of the ones that has stuck with me over the years. Excessive focus on the future seems to be genetic in my case. Ask any of my siblings about how our father would open up a map and make us all look at the exact neighborhood where his mansion would be located when he published his book and it became a bestseller. The presentation usually came with a pamphlet of which boat he was going to get. I laugh at it, but I also have been known to, for example, extrapolate the number and species of pets I will have when crush X decides to marry me. I used to either let myself get sucked into these fantasies, or try to stamp them out, both of which were wastes of time. What has proved effective is recognizing these fantasies as fantasies. When I remind myself that they are distant dreams, and liable to change, their power to drag me out of the present evaporates. That’s a little bit of a terrifying thing to do, because the truth is, the fantasies about the present insulate me against the fear that present me, the one who really has to work for future me’s dreams, is not up to the challenge. I’m afraid of taking the steps that could lead me to success, because in taking them I could prove that I’m a failure.

Still, as I work to do things that make me happy now, when I set short-term goals and work to really accomplish them, I find my life improves, even when my plans fall through. However vividly I can dreams, eventually I am going to be jerked out of the daydream into my real life. Priority number one is to make sure that real life is a decent place to land.

I think I’m going to go enjoy the present moment known as “breakfast” now.

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