Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Twenty-Two

The Patient has survived the first bombing, in exactly the wrong way, from Screwtape’s perspective.

“I gather, not from your miserably inadequate report but from that of the Infernal Police, that the patient’s behaviour during the first raid has been the worst possible. He has been very frightened and thinks himself a great coward and therefore feels no pride; but he had done everything his duty demanded and perhaps a bit more. Against this disaster all you can produce on the credit side is a burst of ill temper with a dog that tripped him up, some excessive cigarette smoking, and the forgetting of a prayer.”

Amid all the moral perfectionism this book has offered, I do like this. The Patient wasn’t perfect, he even feels bad about how he did, and yet from Screwtape’s perspective he showed exemplary human behavior. Humans can be humans, with errors and emotions, and still be wonderful human beings.

Wormwood offers a rare suggestion of his own, that he use the Patient’s own fatigue against him. Screwtape says that is almost hopeless, under the circumstances. He explains that, while moderate fatigue can make people snappish and irritable, the damage done at that time tends to be limited, and true exhaustion actually makes people more gentle. The trick of making fatigue work for a tempter is to keep on making the human think that there is an end in sight, and convincing them that the end in question is very near. This makes them prone to snap if the end does not come right when it is expected. The danger of true exhaustion is that it makes people stop thinking about the future, and just take each moment as it comes.

The key to serenity in danger, despite both fear and fatigue, seems to be an acceptance of the situation. This, I think, was what Screwtape was getting at in the last chapter, when he suggested that, to make the Patient as terrified as possible, he should constantly be kept thinking of what to do if this and that happens, coming up with backup plan after backup plan. Keep him centered on the illusion that he has control, and he will remain terrified. Let him accept his own limitations, and he will find it far easier to be brave. I meant to make a note that I have actually found the strategy of coming up with nesting backup plans is fairly helpful for me, but I hesitated because I also thought he was somewhat right. The truth is that whether or not this strategy backfires depends on how much control you have over the situation. Often there are things I can do to take care of myself, but in the situation will choke from fear. Mentally rehearsing what I will do helps prevent that. I am afraid of talking on the phone; taking a moment to script the conversation, as far as I can, helps me make the call and begin talking. Once the exchange has gotten started, everything gets much easier. On the other hand, one of my fears is that the person I talk to will be sharp, rude or hard to understand. If I remind myself that some people are assholes and so long as I have shown basic courtesy I have no responsibility over that, that helps me handle that source of anxiety, whereas if I tried to pressure myself to come up with a backup plan for every type of asshole out there, I could easily get so worked up I would never make another phone call again. I wish I had learned this much earlier in life.

After this good start, Screwtape goes down a line of reasoning that I don’t appreciate as much.

“There is a sort of attack on the emotions which can still be tried. It turns on making him feel, when first he sees human remains plastered on a wall, that this is ‘what the world is really like’ and that all his religion has been a fantasy. You will notice that we have got them completely fogged about the meaning of the word ‘real.’ They tell each other, of some great spiritual experience, ‘all that really happened was that you heard some music in a lighted building’; here ‘real’ means the bare physical facts, separated from the other elements in the experience they actually had. On the other hand, they will also say ‘It’s all very well discussing that high dive as you sit here in an armchair, but wait till you get up there and see what it’s really like’; here ‘real’ is being used in the opposite sense to mean, not the physical facts (which they know already while discussing the matter in armchairs) but the emotional effect those facts will have on a human consciousness… Your patient, properly handled, will have no difficulty in regarding his emotion at the sight of human entrails as a revelation of Reality and his emotion at the sight of happy children or fair weather as mere sentiment.”

I’ll switch from Watsonian to Doylist analysis here. Lewis looks clever for a moment, as he exposes a flaw in his hypothetical opponent’s reasoning. However, he’s not actually giving a solution to it. Normally, Lewis will twist Screwtape’s letters into knots, in order to put a pro-Christian counterargument into his mouth. This time, he just mocks the contradiction while ignoring a relevant point. Why should the emotional impact of children’s blood splattered on the walls be discounted? For all his talk about reality and logic, he doesn’t give any reason. It’s almost as if he’s saying, “don’t twist your definition of reality in a way that is convenient for atheists; instead, twist it in a way that’s convenient for me!”

I’ve had wonderful, joyful experiences, and I have had experiences that, at one time, I thought were spiritual. I’ve also had negative experiences. During times of pain, I had times when I thought God was giving me comfort, and the comfort was taken away before it had given any relief. There were times I felt what I was sure was a calling, but following it only left me stagnated for years, times when I thought I had received a promise of answered prayer, but the promise was reneged on. For years I told myself that these disappointments only meant that God had something better in store down the line, while I clung to the moments of joy as proof that everything would turn out well. Then I started to notice the double standard. My feelings and subjective experiences were only allowed to count when they supported the belief I was supposed to have. This was an important step in my deconversion, because whenever I had thought of a logical problem with my religion that I couldn’t account for, I would always counter with “maybe my head says this is wrong, but my heart says it’s right.” The truth was, my heart wasn’t saying it was right all the time. It was just that I was only listening to it when what it had to say was convenient.

The reality is that both logically detached reasoning and emotional responses give us information about reality, and it’s on us to patch the two together into our understanding of the world. Some of us will patch them together in different ways, and come to different conclusions, and that’s all right, but it’s not all right to conceive of a reality, and discard valid evidence in order to protect it. Now, all of us do this to some extent. We all are prone to confirmation bias and the like, but it’s one thing to occasionally fall prey to it, and it’s another thing entirely to state that a whole type of human experience (such as the experience of suffering and tragedy) is all right to dismiss, with no justification beyond “it doesn’t fit my idea of reality very well, so I don’t like it.”

I do my best to both feel and contemplate all aspects of my life, joyful and sorrowful and everything in between. I think about how music is vibrations creating patterns in my brain that are perceived as pleasurable, but that doesn’t interfere with my enjoyment of it. If anything, it enhances it, because when you really understand the bizarre complexities and mysteries of the brain, that creates its own sense of beauty and wonder. I also think rationally about things that make me upset.  People who get away with rape make me angry and sad, which leads me to wonder about how our justice system is based on the requirement that guilt must be proved, and how to reconcile that with a crime that is so difficult to prove, and so traumatizing to victims, especially when they are disbelieved. And for the record, I don’t have a good answer for that one. My point is that, even when the combination makes me come down in a mess of frustrated “fuck I dunno,” I still keep both sides in mind.

It’s all real; happiness, sadness, beauty, and ugliness. It all needs to be dealt with, even when we can’t all agree on what it all means and what to do about it. Denying any one inconvenient part exists is in no way healthy or rational.

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