Lately I have been spending my spare moments with C. S. Lewis. We’ve been friends for over twenty years; however, it has been quite a while since I have slowed down in order to engage him in conversation and really listen to what he has to say. Lewis and I do not always agree. In fact, on topics such as monarchies and certain alleged hierarchies we vehemently disagree; but on other topics such as desire, love, longing, loss, and the Christian journey, Lewis’s wisdom has been a steady source of inspiration, instruction, encouragement, and healing.
After a recent hour or two well spent with Lewis, I found myself ruminating over a chapter called, “The Inner Ring,” in his book, The Weight of Glory. Lewis begins the chapter with an excerpt from Tolstoy’s, War and Peace. The passage highlights two different “systems” of social relationships. One is a written rulebook of sorts delineating relations of superiors to inferiors. A prime example of this system is found in the military where generals are always higher in rank and importance than colonels and the same with colonels and captains. Here relational rankings are clear and rather fixed. In contrast, an unwritten system of social relationship exists as well. Here the rules are nebulous and often morph, but they too create standings and statuses, namely, insiders and outsiders. Describing this second, informal system of rankings, Lewis writes: “You are never formally and explicitly admitted by anyone. You discover gradually, in almost indefinable ways, that it exists and that you are inside it” (144). Those on the “inside” take pride in their having made it (all the while anxiously hoping not to lose their status). They immediately begin name-dropping, making sure that everyone knows that they are now part of the “we” that doesn’t include “you.” Those on the “outside” longing to cross that invisible insider-status line speak derisively of so-and-so and their gang—otherwise known as, the Inner Ring.
This Inner Ring phenomenon that Lewis so lucidly describes is something with which all are familiar, having participated variously as outsiders, insiders, or hopeful borderline candidates. Given my own experiences with Inner Rings and my observations of others, I find convincing Lewis’s claim that over the course of our lives “one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside” (146).
Of course, Inner Rings are both multiple and diverse—some are rather shallow and meaningless, others more substantive. Lewis, in fact, does not judge the mere existence of Inner Rings as morally wrong or bad per se. Social relations of this sort are unavoidable and in many cases appropriate and warranted. For example, one ought to choose carefully those with whom one shares his or her deepest desires, struggles, fears, and the like. Yet, Lewis—like Augustine and Plato before him—moves immediately to the heart of the matter, desire, which of course has everything to do with the heart and our tangled, twisted, and often disordered and misplaced loves. Although Inner Rings are likely necessary yet not necessarily evil, “the desire which draws us into Inner Rings is another matter. A thing may be morally neutral and yet the desire for that thing may be dangerous” (149).
Desire, longing, passion—here we plunge into the murkiest of waters, a realm rife with potential and wonder yet so frequently misdirected and sorrow-ridden. That is, so often our longing to be on the “right” side of the invisible line demarcating whatever our Inner Ring happens to be, as Lewis observes, can result in the worst sort of self-compromise. Equally bad, our desire for insider status can drive us to abandon those who were or could have been genuine and loyal friends. Why? Simply because at the time we saw them as obstacles hindering our ability to cross the coveted the invisible line. Thus, we have the first main point of Lewis’s chapter, “[o]f all passions the passion for the Inner Ring is most skilled in making a man who is not yet very bad do very bad things” (154)
This brings us to the second main point in Lewis’s musings:
It is the very mark of a perverse desire that it seeks what is not to be had. The desire to be inside the invisible line illustrates this rule. As long as you are governed by that desire you will never get what you want. You are trying to peel an onion; if you succeed there will be nothing left. Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain (154).
As noted earlier, Lewis is not denouncing all social rings nor is he here speaking to unjust social systems that exclude according to race, gender, and sexuality. His point is rather that if what drives us is a desire merely to gain access to so-and-so’s group, then whatever pleasure we derive from our being in and your being out will be short-lived and deeply unsatisfying. Lewis likens it to “the torture allotted to the Danaids in the classical world, that of attempting to fill sieves with water” (154). Rings of this sort are built upon exclusion and futility.
Thankfully, Lewis doesn’t leave us despairing but points us to a hopeful although paradoxical path—one might even call it a death and resurrection path. That is, if we can manage to walk away from those hollow, heart-wrenching rings and devote ourselves as best we can to those activities that we have known to be true and life-giving, we will find that we “have come unawares to a real inside” (157). Here we will find likeminded others—others seeking not the lure of numbers, secret knowledge, or rings of power and prestige; rather, others with whom we can form lasting and genuine friendships—friendships based on virtue, fidelity, and a common pursuit of what is good and what promotes mutual flourishing. Such friendships are exceedingly rare in our day and even more difficult to cultivate and maintain given our ever-increasing mobility and highly technologically mediated lifestyles. Such difficulties notwithstanding, those few and uncommon genuine friendships that I have been fortunate to experience have indeed been the source of intense joy over the course of my life. Thus, Lewis, yet again you remind me of what’s really important: “[friendship] causes perhaps half of all the happiness in the world, and no Inner Ringer can ever have it” (157).