The Purifying Effect of Pleasure

One of my favorite parts of The Screwtape Letters is a section from the senior demon Screwtape, advising his “junior tempter” Wormwood to make sure that the human he is attempting to divert from God doesn’t cultivate many personal pleasures:

I myself would make it a rule to eradicate from my patient any strong personal taste which is not actually a sin, even if is something quite trivial such as a fondness for country cricket or collecting stamps or drinking cocoa. Such things, I grant you, have nothing of virtue in them; but there is a sort of innocence and humility and self-forgetfulness about them which I distrust.

The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the word, for its own sake, and without caring two pence what other people say about it, is by that very fact fore-armed against some of our subtlest modes of attack. You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favour of the “best” people, the “right” food,” the “important” books. I have known  a human defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions.

In other words: The more a person learns to love things because they are lovely to him, and not because they make him look better or advance his sense of ego, the closer they are to a true kind of humility. The man who loves every film that all his friends seem to like too may not actually be loving the art itself, he may be loving the satisfaction that comes when his peers authenticate his loves. In this instance, the object of love is not the film, nor even really his friends, but himself.

It may sound at first like Lewis is urging a kind of individualistic self-assertion. But that’s not true. What Screwtape dreads to see is not an isolated, self-focused, contrarian human existence (on the contrary, such ground is fertile for demonic success). What Screwtape fears is a human who finds genuine pleasure in things that do not rebound to his own glory. In this kind of moment of authentic delight, a person experiences a crucial reality of the kingdom of God: The things that bring the most happiness are the things that bring us out of ourselves.

The Italian poet Dante interestingly differentiated between a lustful love of the other, and a love of the self. In the Inferno, unrepentant adultery is punished in hell, but it is punished less severely than other kinds of human passion. Why? Because even sexual immorality with a lover requires a sort of surrendering of the self to the other. It is the “self-lovers” who are closer to the bottom of hell, because their sin is both rebellion against God and a violent disregard of that which is outside themselves.

In our contemporary Western culture, such a strong condemnation of self-oriented love sounds not just absurd, but outrageous. Ours is a therapeutic age that encourages us to live hyper-introspectively, continually discerning “who we are,” “what we want,” and most importantly, “what we deserve” out of life. The mantra of the 21st century is “Only God can judge me,” and in an age of murky religious pluralism everyone knows that God is really a euphemism for oneself.

My generation has no trouble encouraging individualism. The age of Netflix and Spotify is, if nothing else, the reign of the individual, with full power for selectivity and customization without any fear of ever being unable to satisfy preexisting tastes. But that’s not the kind of pleasure that Lewis is talking about. Lewis is not talking about individualistic pleasure, but personal pleasure. Individualistic pleasure seeks to hide from others to protect itself; personal pleasure does not hide, but neither does it demand to be the center of attention. It’s a contentment with what Lewis elsewhere called the “quiddity” of life–a real thankfulness and wonder at the universe, and a recognition of a great Giver.

Cultivating pleasures and interests that we can enjoy alone helps to protect against the instinct to always measure ourselves against others. Enjoying a favorite book that no one would give us props for reading allows to take delight in something truly outside ourselves, to forget ourselves for a moment and receive a gift. Making time for hobbies that won’t improve our resume or get us “Likes” on Instagram helps us to make sure that our personal formation isn’t merely an effort to gain approval and, thus, a sense of self-actualization.

It is fascinating to reflect that even though our modern age enables and incentives “me time,” so much of that time is meant to ultimately rebound in social approval. Perhaps one reason so many modern Americans find their “me time” dissatisfying is that they actually don’t do it well enough. By living life preoccupied by what’s most Tweetable or makes for the most compelling Facebook post, many of us don’t ever actually cultivate habits of rest and contentment. Even our R&R is mostly about working to get approved.

What Lewis prescribes here is, I think, supremely important in a digital age. Looking for joy in things that don’t come back to you in the form of praise or admiration is a spiritual practice. It could very well be that the price of digital distraction will be a widespread inability to really love anything, just an instinct to click, “Like,” and keep swiping. We should heed the words of Lewis’s fictional demons, and learn the freedom of personal, self-forgetful pleasure again.

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