Exploring Lewis’s “The Inner Ring”

This past week, bells rang, students scuffled through the hallways, and books opened once again.  The rusty gears of public education, silent for the last few weeks, began to spin once more, stiffly at first.  School busses are now toting fresh-faced children to school.  Teachers are busy preparing for a new school year and implementing routines to help ensure student success.  We strive to give each student an equal opportunity to change the future for the better.

However, the social experience that characterizes high school is another matter entirely.  We control our decisions, over whether or not we complete homework or study for a test, but we cannot alter the fierce judgments of others.  This pressure of being “in or out” is the origin of bullying, of which recently we have seen persistent campaigns in the press and in local communities.  We can all reflect on high school and recall the various “social groups”.  In fact, the television show Saved By the Bell capitalized on this phenomena.  The show was a hit during my adolescence, and perhaps because it resonates with all of us who matriculated through high school and possessed the impulse to categorize.  This person is into this, so we file them in this group.  Quite contrarily, college affirms the brilliance of the unique.  In college (or at least it was my experience), those who blurred social definitions, who defied categorization, triumphed.

I cheer on students who refuse to be defined by shallow preconceptions.  The best thing one can do is celebrate uniqueness and despise conformity.  If you can unplug yourself from such frivolous desires (such as the desire to gain conditional acceptance), you have defeated the giant which psychologicially anesthesizes so many.  Unfortunately, this does not always disappear once we graduate.  When we mature, it is to new heirarchies, different systems which demand for us to adapt. We learn what and what is not socially acceptable.  We learn who must follow the rules and who can thwart them. It is in our adulthood where we make the disappointing discovery that we may change, but the awful heirarchies which made us nauseous can often survive adolesence.

And what then?  Do you change to gain this acceptance?  Do you at once repress the voice in your head which warns you that the acceptance is conditional?  Is association and not individual satisfaction your premiere goal in life?

Ah, but then again, a grin crosses your lips.  To be “one of them”!  To have access to the information, to the “right” people, to be seen with “that crowd” – what elation! What this will do for my reputation/job opportunities/social life!

And thus begins the uphill struggle, the sacrifice. You do things for the appobation of others. Yes, I did this, you say, but did they see me?  Did they notice me?  Doing activities for your own personal pleasure is lost, replaced with the burning desire to win “them” over so you can become “we”.  But you see, if you do make it in friend, you will find a new struggle, one to maintain what you have “earned”.  Sadly, there is no brass ring, just the illusion of one.  The joke is on you.  Your behavior will evolve to pattern yourself after “them” until no trace of yourself is left.  You gladly compromise everything for admittance, to find that what you tossed so quickly and carelessly on the alter was what you should have cherished.  But the time is gone and realization came too late.

C.S. Lewis spoke of this in his appropriately titled essay, “The Inner Ring”.  In it, Lewis argues that the “Inner Ring” is actually menacing.  He states that if we do not take steps to prevent it, it will steal our time and ambition. The essay serves more as a warning than an exposition:

My main purpose in this address is simply to convince you that this desire is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action.  It is one of the factors which go to make up the world as we know it – this whole pell-mell of struggle, competition, confusion, graft, disappointment, and advertisement, and if it is one of the permanent mainsprings, then you may be quite sure of this.  Unless you take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life, from the first day on which you enter your profession until the day when you are too old to care.  That will be the natural thing – the life that will come to you of its own accord. Any other kind of life, if you lead it, will be the result of conscious and continuous effort.  If you do nothing about it, if you drift with the stream, you will in fact be an ‘inner ringer.’ I don’t say you’ll be a successful one; that’s as may be.  But whether by pining or moping outside Rings that you can never enter, or by passing triumphantly further and further in – one way or the other you will be that kind of man.

There is, Lewis illuminates, a deep meaning behind the supposedly benign use of the pronouns “we” and “they.”  Lewis identifies an “invisible line” in which exists association or lack of association.  There’d be no fun if there were no outsiders, Lewis writes. The invisible line would have no meaning unless most people were on the wrong side of it. Exclusion is no accident; it is the essence.  For some, that bears no importance.   For others, it encompasses the foundation on which they build their worth. Essentially, you are admitting that you are nothing of your own accord, that you require the company of others before that value arrives.  What you must do is disregard the impulse to elevate association as crucial to your value.  Exalt your own individuality, given to you by a God who established variety, over the conceptions which other people create.

Gerard Manley Hopkins once confirmed this in his poem “Pied Beauty”

Glory to God for dappled things –

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow,

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings

Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;

And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow, sweet, sour, adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.

Diversity is a keystone of creation. Differences should be celebrated. If you find yourself trying to fit into a social group, it proves that you do not belong there naturally.  Transitioning to the group is not an option; transcendence is.  Rise above the propensity to blend.  Those who treasure their uniqueness do not wish to change.  They see that the mirror reflects a masterpiece.  Loving who you are at your very core is absolute necessity.  Changing to simply be different is not the essence of who you are.  Those who truly know who they are would never entertain the thought.

You see, you cannot dangle what you assume is a privilege in front of an individual for whom the lack of that privilege has no value. A cup of water is only desired by a thirsty man.  If I care not for it, then it cannot be used as a means of control.  Live your life by your own dreams, not by the demands of the sacred oligarchy.

Lewis continues, The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it.  But if you break it, a surprising result will follow.  If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, the other sound craftsmen will know it.  This group of craftsmen will by no means coincide with the Inner Ring or the Important People or the People in the Know…And if in your spare time you consort simply with the people you like, you will again find that you have come unawares to a real inside, that you are indeed snug and safe at the centre of something which, seen without, would look exactly like an Inner Ring.  But the difference is that its secrecy is accidental, and its exclusiveness a by-product, and no one was led thither by the lure of the esoteric, for it is only four or five people who like one another meeting to do things that they like.  This is friendship.  Aristotle placed it among the virtues.

There are times where I have pined for that approval but it was not simply meant to be.  Individual solitude is more valuable than corporate association. In the past, I have disappointed those I love to achieve that association. Last year, I left my mother’s bedside at the hospital to do so.  I deeply regret it.  My mother would easily forsake all others for me, and yet, I strived to feel “in” with a group to whom I clearly did not belong.  It is disheartening to feel alone in a room full of people.  I have made it “in the door” and have still not felt the warmth of the hearth.  The margins of “in” are just as cold as “out”.

Lewis provides great advice here.  Do your work and be found a craftsman.  Value individuality over “people to know.”  Figure out who wears a mask and who is genuine.  When you find the latter, hold them very close to your heart.  Delight in their friendship for they love you as you are, as God created you to be.


The Importance of Wounded Butterflies

Earlier this summer, Ray Bradbury, a great American literary monolith, passed away at the age of 91.  Bradbury wrote such classics as Fahrenheit 451, and a myriad of great short stories.  Among these is a story titled, “A Sound of Thunder.”  Today, I teach this story multiple times a year and I enjoy it increasingly more because it has a personal significance.

The story’s protagonist, Mr. Eckles, lives in the year 2055.  In the future, time travel is not only possible, it is a lucrative business.  Time Safari Inc. ensures that its presence in the past will not alter future events.  Eckels pays to hunt and kill a Tyrannosaurus Rex, one already identified as succumbing to a falling tree without the trespassing of visitors.  Mr. Travis, the tour guide, informs the travelers that they must stay on the path.  If not, they could alter time forever.  When Eckles asks why stepping on a mouse would cause such historical disturbance, Mr. Travis explains,

“Well, what about the foxes that’ll need those mice to survive? For want of ten mice, a fox dies. For want of ten foxes a lion starves. For want of a lion, all manner of insects, vultures, infinite billions of life forms are thrown into chaos and destruction. Eventually it all boils down to this: fifty-nine million years later, a caveman, one of a dozen on the entire world, goes hunting wild boar or saber-toothed tiger for food. But you, friend, have stepped on all the tigers in that region. By stepping on one single mouse. So the caveman starves. And the caveman, please note, is not just any expendable man, no! He is an entire future nation. From his loins would have sprung ten sons. From their loins one hundred sons, and thus onward to a civilization. Destroy this one man, and you destroy a race, a people, an entire history of life. It is comparable to slaying some of Adam’s grandchildren. The stomp of your foot, on one mouse, could start an earthquake, the effects of which could shake our earth and destinies down through Time, to their very foundations. With the death of that one caveman, a billion others yet unborn are throttled in the womb. Perhaps Rome never rises on its seven hills. Perhaps Europe is forever a dark forest, and only Asia waxes healthy and teeming. Step on a mouse and you crush the Pyramids. Step on a mouse and you leave your print, like a Grand Canyon, across Eternity. Queen Elizabeth might never be born, Washington might not cross the Delaware, there might never be a United States at all. So be careful. Stay on the Path. Never step off!”

When Eckles arrives in the past, he becomes frightened and tries to forfeit.  However, he cautiously ventures out on the path, is petrified when he encounters the Tyrannosaurus Rex, and slips off, leaving a bootprint in the viscous mud beneath. Mr. Travis reprimands him for disobeying orders as the machine winds through years and years of history to return to the present.  When they arrive, the language is different and the politician who just won the presidency is a different candidate.  Eckles turns over his boot and discovers a single, beautiful butterfly.  He had carried it into the present, ultimately altering the past.

Amazing how much one butterfly can drastically change the future.

In fact, it was just nine years ago that I was on the precipice of such change.  After returning from college, I secured a customer service, “cubicle”  job.  In my community, these jobs pay well, but I knew deep down that it is not what I wanted to do long-term.  In the summer of 2003, a nearby school system offered me a job as a P.A.L.S. aide.  P.A.L.S. is a remediation program which helps struggling readers learn; the aim is to shrink the gap between good readers and struggling readers in elementary school before time compounds the confusion and leads to student frustration and lower test scores.  At the same time, I was offered another well-paying position in customer service.  P.A.L.S. would only offer me $6.45 an hour of part-time employment while the customer service position offered me full-time hours, benefits, and $10+ an hour.  Most people would easily choose the latter, but I was still very conflicted.

After the interview for the customer service position, I ventured to a store next door.  Before reaching the entrance I paused and did a doubletake.  Laying on the concrete, lifeless yet beautiful, was a vibrant turquoise butterfly.  It was crushed on the pavement.  The contrast is what had caught my eye.  This lovely symbol was juxaposed against grey nothingness, trampled by pedestrians.  Even in death, it possessed an indescribable beauty. Something inside me said, Do you surrender to your desire to have more “stability” or do you chase your destiny?  You know what you are supposed to do. Don’t dispose of your opportunities.  Make the right choice.  From the moment I laid eyes on that butterfly, that one lone butterfly, I knew that the trip had been a waste.  I was destined to take the P.A.L.S. position.

Thus began one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Helping a child read his/her first words is truly amazing.  Teaching children to read introduces them to a whole new perspective, places full of mysterious wardrobes, of young orphans studying wizardry, of hobbits travelling distant lands; ultimately it grants them exposure to endless journeys and new, whimsical worlds.   By the end of the following school year, all of my students were reading.  They all passed the P.A.L.S. end-of-year assessment.  I was so proud of them, my heart felt like bursting.  Later that summer, I was hired to teach high school literature, where I will begin my ninth year of instruction this week.

It’s incredible how one image remains with you.  You sigh when you reflect, but you understand the choice and sacrifice you made in that moment which forever changed the trajectory of your life.  That one insect gave me the confidence to choose the path I already knew I must take.


Seasons of Doubt

Just recently, I purchased a copy of David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me, an ominous portrait of young, modern Christians who are walking away from the Church in droves.  Why the mass exodus?  Kinnaman, who serves as president of the Christian research firm the Barna Group, uses statistics strengthened by interviews to reveal that many young Christians cannot reconcile their faith with other cultural influences.  One of the chapters titled “Antiscience” discusses how young members (or in some cases former members) of the faith are struggling to connect scientific inquiry and empirical study to a dogma which requires a surrendered faith, believing without seeing.  Here Kinnaman states:

We must do a bettter job challenging and training all young Christians – not just the science geeks – to think clearly, honestly, and comprehensively about matters of science.  This includes understanding the various philosophies that undergird science, scientism, and knowledge.  Teaching philosophy to teens and young adults is not easy, but if we don’t we may be asking too little of the next generation and setting our expectations of them too low. (142) 

The book began to spark questions I entertained when I was younger.  Growing up in church, I was taught the basic tenets of faith, to pray, to read the Bible, to faithfully attend a church.  But as I grew older, the harder questions began.  Why do bad things happen to good people?  Why do “bad” people seem to always be ahead, while good people suffer?  Brooke Fraser’s latest album Flags addresses this very issue in the title song:

I don’t know why the innocents fall

While the monsters stand

I don’t know why the little ones thirst

But I know the last shall be first

You see, faith is actually very difficult.  Allegiance to a God one has never seen takes courage and the aforementioned faith.  I have wrestled with doubt, but the most recent struggle (and perhaps the toughest one) was in 2006.

As a graduate student in English, I read many of the towering classics which compose the English canon.  In one evening discussion, a comment from another student gave me a real, but painful clarity about my faith. The student was agnostic, from what I could gather in the discussion.  Despite this lack of connection to a faith, the student made a keen observation that many of the faiths are, in fact, quite the same.  Most faiths have some belief in an afterlife.  This afterlife is seen as either a reward or a punishment for actions during our lifetimes.  For some, the afterlife includes a bevy of virgins, or a mansion, but most importantly, a reunion with the Creator figure.  There are Christ figures and Moses figures throughout history – stories retold and transformed through oral history, the lens colored by a specific faith’s perception.

I was taken aback.  Was it possible that someone of another faith was observing me and accusing me of heresy?  But we are the ones who are “right”, right?  Are my convictions any different than others who are Muslim?  or Hindu?  or Buddist?  Furthermore, why are there strains of similarity in so many religions?

Early in Janurary of that year, my uncle lost his battle with an enduring illness.  At his funeral, the preacher’s voice crescendoed from the pulpit, promising that we will see him again one day.  “He is in a place where there is NO sickness.  Amen?”  Voices rose in affirmation.  I briefly paused to think.  So my faith believes that when you die, you go a perfect place called Heaven where many of those who precede us in death will be.  There is no sickness there, everyone has a mansion, the streets are made of solid gold.  Hmmm, I was starting to see why others would question Christianity as they questioned various other religions.

And what of the Bible?  Did Paul know that his epistolary encouragement would one day be, among other manuscripts, an instruction manual for an entire religion?  Are there interpretations which some people have “taken liberties” with?  Why do some  deceivers blur a Biblical interpretation to persuade people to an idealism?  I had seen it before.  When I was young, my parents were supporters of PTL (Praise the Lord).  I remember my mother watching the morning program during which singers would praise God, singing with eyes closed and hands uplifted.  Later, my parents took me to Heritage U.S.A., a theme park in Charlotte, North Carolina that was saturated with Christianity. My parents and I took a tram tour and I distinctly remember the tour guide looking earnestly in our eyes, pleading for “him to come back.”  The comment received thunderous applause.  The man behind PTL and Heritage was none other than Jim Bakker. Earlier that week, unbeknowst to a child such as I, Bakker was arrested on various charges, including mail fraud, wire fraud, and conspiracy.

As a child, I was hurt.  What wickedness!  To steal from my parents and other faithful givers, people who go without to contribute to a network which was hemorrhagging money on frivolous items such as an air-conditioned dog house.  At the time, I assumed Bakker was just a greedy man.  Then another televanglist, Jimmy Swaggart, was featured on the news for infidelity.  His pulpit confession became national headlines (and later made a punchline) when he cried, “I have sinned.”

And in this whirlwind of controversy and uncertainty, my generation began to form its faith.  It is no wonder that Kinnaman was finding such a strong response in his research. Where were our role models?  Who would be the next of the flock to step into leadership?  This idea of leadership had been patronized by the media and society for its hypocrasy.  How does one recover?

In the end, the fault is all mine.  The truth is, PEOPLE WILL ALWAYS DISAPPOINT YOU.  Faith lies in God, not man.  The moment it changes hands is the origin of chaos. As for my questions, I eventually resolved them.  C.S. Lewis, in an essay about the simplicity of writing for children, made clear for me the reason why many endorse the idea of an afterlife:

Does anyone suppose that he really and prosaically longs for all the dangers and discomforts of a fairy tale? – really wants dragons in contemporary England?  It is not so.  It would be much truer to say that fairy land arouses a longing for he knows not what. It stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.  This is a special kind of longing.  – On Three Ways of Writing for Children

I am not, nor is Lewis, suggesting that fairy tales are real.  But fairy tales echo in our hearts; tales tickle that great desire buried deeply within us – that something else. It cannot be explained, but only experienced.  Lewis argues in several works that God has placed echoes of Heaven here on Earth to serve as reminders of the glory that awaits us.  Many religions have a firm belief in the afterlife because, ultimately, we are wired to desire it.  Fairy tales hint at this.  In my last post, I mentioned that our sense of justice originates from our Creator, so does the grand design to which we only catch occasional glimpses but the glimpses are enough to satisfy a restless heart.  Our conviction that a Heaven exists is simply a default setting.  This is the reason for our spiritual curiosity – the answer to the question some struggle with during their entire lives.  The point is to surrender to it.  Disregard the bad examples, know Christ’s sovereignty is for Him alone, and submit to that design.  The adventure is worth the risk.  Besides, a tested faith is one that emerges stronger.  Trials will come, but our God is bigger.

Despite what Kinnaman uncovered about the spiritual stagnance of our generation, I believe that healing is possible and reconsideration is inevitable.  The emptiness cannot endure so surrender will come.  In the meantime, we should remain optimistic and sensitive to God’s spirit as it moves. He will carry us through a season of doubt and usher us to a renewed passion for our Savior.