Have you ever wondered what a demon might think about humans?
C.S. Lewis gives a fictionalized but insightful idea of this in his novel, “The Screwtape Letters.” He writes from the perspective of a senior demon named Screwtape who is advising his young nephew, Wormwood, on how to tempt humans. It touches on themes of psychology, social interaction, and Lewis’ Christian religion throughout; but one particular section about how choices impact us made an enormous difference to me.
Lewis said in the book that “the safest road to hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” Our choices change us. Someone doesn’t wake up and think, “Hey, I’m gonna be a murderer today.” Many little decisions slowly change a person, until eventually that person becomes the sort who could be provoked to murder.
At the end of high school I was making a lot of choices, both good and bad, about what sort of person I wanted to be. To become the sort of compassionate, confident Christian man I wanted to be required a lot of change. I had picked up the book for the first time before that, near the beginning of high school, but my parents and I started listening to it on audiobook when we were driving several years after that initial reading. Lewis’ use of satire from the viewpoint of someone who wants people to be bad gave it an originality that made even old ideas impact more heavily than good books with a teaching-oriented perspective, such as Biblical commentaries or transcriptions of sermons.
One comment in particular made a heavy impact on me: “The more often he feels without acting, the less he will be able ever to act, and, in the long run, the less he will be able to feel.”
Screwtape’s letters to Wormwood taught me that if you feel compassion and choose not to act on it, then you train yourself not to have compassion in that situation. Continue down that road, and someday you might not have any compassion at all. Obviously, in a religion with scripture saying true religion is helping widows and orphans, a lack of compassion is awful. This sword cuts both ways, though. If someone feels anger and practices restraint, it could teach that person when to act on that emotion and when not to.
This principle broadens out to apply to any type of change. If someone’s natural desire is to slash at people with sarcasm, that inclination won’t go away instantly. First, that person needs to stop one comment, and then another, and then continue on until the habit is trained out. Similarly, in order to learn how to give people compliments, one has to force the first, and then another, and then continue on until it’s natural to seek out good things to say about people.
From there, the book started changing my vision of who I wanted to be. Through the sardonic voice of Screwtape, Lewis spoke of a blend of humility and confidence wherein a person would enjoy strengths but acknowledge weaknesses. The book showed people tempering their own personal desires and preferences in order to help other people. These things almost always revolved around the person’s relationships with other people and with God, which makes sense when you consider that Jesus said in the Gospel of John that people would know his followers because they loved one another.
From this, the book taught me a lot about how to conform myself to the type of person I wanted to be: a bold, but empathetic man striving to be like Jesus Christ.
Reach reporter Andrew Rodgers at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @AndrewRodgersau
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