Screwtape’s Practical Advice for Dealing with the Present
What you should do is imagine all the bad things that could happen. Picture each awful possibility as you lay awake at 3 a.m., letting image after image flood your mind. Think about how you would bear it, if you were sick from the coronavirus, or if COVID-19 struck someone you loved.
That’s what Screwtape would advise. A lot of people are looking for practical counsel at the present and one excellent resource is a series of letters written by Screwtape and published by C. S. Lewis. Of course the venerable uncle from the underworld and the author of The Screwtape Letters (which fell into Lewis’s hands sometime during the relentless Nazi bombing of London in 1940-1941), does not speak to our situation specifically. Screwtape said nothing about the coronavirus in his advice to his nephew Wormwood, a junior devil tasked with temping one particular human in the World War II era. Nevertheless, there is much to learn from the senior devil, and the lessons can be applied to our present situation.
For example, Screwtape has suggestions for what we might think about when we’re lying awake in bed at night. He tells Wormwood to encourage the human’s mind to run. “We want him to be in the maximum uncertainty, so that his mind will be filled with contradictory pictures of the future, every one of which arouses hope or fear.” Humans love to have “courage.” They like to imagine how they would “be strong” and exert control over the universe in lots of different hypothetical futures. “Let him forget,” Screwtape writes, “that, since they are incompatible, they cannot all happen to him, and let him try to practice fortitude and patience to them all in advance.”
Lewis, who was a rather old-fashioned Christian, tried to dissuade people from listening to this sage counsel. “Readers are advised to remember that the devil is a liar,” he wrote in the preface The Screwtape Letters in 1942. “Not everything that Screwtape says should be assumed to be true even from his own angle.”
Lewis would say that what we need to do in this situation is to “accept with patience the tribulation which has actually been dealt out to [us]—the present anxiety and suspense.” For him, the anxiety we feel about our future is our present cross. The Christian challenge is to take it up, like Jesus took up his cross. We should acknowledge our fear, ask God for help, and then to pray as Christ taught us, “Thy will be done.” When we do that, an amazing thing begins to happen. The power that fear holds over us, if not eliminated, is at least diminished, and we find the strength to carry on.
One only has to lay awake for an hour or two, though, mulling over the facts from that informative article on the first symptoms of COVID-19, to know that Screwtape’s advice is far more compelling. The choice between trusting prayer and sleepless worry is hardly a choice at all!
Focus on Personal Relationships
Screwtape offers more advice, too. He would counsel us all to nurture interpersonal hostility at this time, something easily done when we are flooded with anxiety. In crisis, other people can become a threat or, at least, sources of irritation. It’s what we feel when we go to the grocery store looking for hand sanitizer and toilet paper and find only empty shelves. We are instantly overcome with irritation and even anger toward the people who took more than they needed. We begin to see everyone else in the store through a lens of judgment. Encourage that process, Screwtape says. Point out that other people are stupid. Find the perfect gif to convey your disdain. It might take a little while, but that’s okay. Take that time to marinate in the juices of your hostility.
In the particular case dealt with in The Screwtape Letters, the senior devil gives advice on a relationship between mother and son. But we can easily adapt the counsel to our own particular circumstances: it works between spouses, roommates, or siblings, just as well as between parent and child! Whoever the person is you’re stuck with, obsess over his or her most irritating behavior. Think about why they would do such things. Remark frequently to yourself that you would never do such things and speculate on their possible motivations.
It’s especially important at this point to narrow your imagination, so as not to nurture compassion. Don’t, under any circumstances, think about the fears and insecurities that might have brought the other person to this moment in time. If you do, you might glimpse the real person in the midst of their own struggle, and then you would lose your chance for a good disdaining.
The Importance of Staying Busy
Another bit of advice during this time of quarantines: Screwtape would urge us to avoid the simple pleasures and beauties all around us. It’s fine to think about beauty as an abstraction, of course. What you don’t want to do is go for a walk start saying stupid things to yourself like “that’s a bird,” when you see a bird, or “that’s a breeze,” when the wind stirs.
It’s the sensual bursts of pleasure that are the problem, distracting us as they do from our full plate of anxieties. Lewis upheld the boring old traditionalist notion that the aim of human life is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. He thought that humans had the peculiar capacity to receive glory through the gifts of retinas and palates. Small, inconsequential pleasures become worship, if you notice them as they happen.
“To experience the tiny theophany is itself to adore,” he wrote in another book, Letters to Malcolm. “We are being touched by a finger of that right hand at which there are pleasures for evermore.”
What nonsense. Screwtape helpfully teaches us how to avoid this: be busy. That can be hard, of course, in a time when stores are closed and events are canceled and people are required to stay home and spend time alone or with their families, but with a little effort it is still possible. There are a lot of streaming videos to watch, social media status to update, and various forms of entertainment. Anything with noise is good, as noise “defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples, and impossible desires.”
Worry also takes up a lot of attention, as does ambition. Think about how you are going to get ahead, as everything’s shifting and changing in this current situation, and strategize your future successes.
The precise details of your preoccupation aren’t important, according to Screwtape. If time passes and you didn’t even notice, you’re doing it right.
Finally, Screwtape would want us to ignore any painful awareness of our precarious state, as humans who exist in time. Normally, that isn’t too tall of an order. But in moments like this, when our lives are disrupted by a virus, there’s a real risk we’ll be confronted with our mortality, limitations, and lack of control. But that can be avoided!
One good idea, here, is to turn to technical matters. Screwtape writes that the best method is to focus on ways that “earth can be turned into Heaven at some future date by politics or eugenics or ‘science’ or psychology, or what not.” Science is a tricky one, because it can get you started imagining you don’t know things and thinking about the great expanses of space and time beyond human comprehension. But as long as you focus on the part that gives you a sense of mastery, you’ll probably be okay.
The problem with that unsettling thought, is it can awaken thoughts of something beyond this life, and stir up an “appetite for heaven.” That appetite is terribly uncomfortable for those unfortunate enough to acquire it, since it cannot be satisfied by anything you do.
According to Screwtape, the ideal scenario is for humans to face death only when surrounded by “doctors who lie, nurses who lie, friends who lie, as we have trained them, promising life to the dying, encouraging the belief that sickness excuses every indulgence, and even, if our workers know their job, withholding all suggestion of a priest lest it should betray to the sick man his true condition.”
No Time Like the Present
As Christians well know, it is only in the present that we have the freedom to act—to obey the “present voice of conscience,” bear “the present cross,” receive “the present grace,” or give thanks “for the present pleasure.” Lewis would add that it is only in the present we can remember the past, when God was faithful, or look to the future, when God restores and fulfills all things.
Thankfully, we can spare ourselves that messiness if we choose to live in the past, focusing on regrets we cannot rectify. Or better yet, as we face the threat of this current pandemic, we can obsess about the future, endlessly playing out “what if” scenarios, instead of thinking about what is to come “just so much as is necessary for now planning the acts of justice or charity which will probably be . . . [our] duty tomorrow.”
Whatever lies ahead, we should do our best to avoid the moment where “time touches eternity.” Because it is there, Screwtape writes, “and there alone, all duty, all grace, all knowledge, and all pleasure dwell.” Good thing we have such a wise senior devil to give us practical advice on dealing with the present!
Gary S. Selby is professor of ministerial formation at Emmanuel Christian Seminary at Milligan and author of Pursuing an Earthly Spirituality: CS Lewis and Incarnational Faith.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the magazine.
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