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.



Very perceptive use of Lewis’s admonition. Thanks for your insight and application, Crystal. — Bruce

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