Tuesday, June 11, 2013

C. S. Lewis: The Thrill, then Real Work, then Happiness

C. S. Lewis reminds us that most important activities in life begin with duty and end with joy. 
"St. Clive" Icon?
      He offers that all good things—like love—start with emotion, but become better when  work hard, become less enthralled, then we move past mere feelings to where real enjoyment can be found. This is the path of obedience. For example, Lewis wrote to Edith Gates in 1944 that 
we have no power to make ourselves love God. The only way is absolute obedience to Him, total surrender. He will give us ‘feeling’ He pleases. But both when He does and when He does not, we shall gradually learn that feeling is not the important thing.
In other words, feelings do not constitute our love for God; they are the result of obeying God. It is our will—or the center of action, which the Bible calls “the heart” (not to be confused with our emotions)—that is central to God. God wants to move us to action and that is why the heart matters to God.
      So feelings come and go. But when Lewis looked at the central form of Gift-love or charity, he described this as “an affair of the will.” God “will give us feelings of love as He pleases. We cannot create them for ourselves, and we must not demand them as a right.” In this regard, Lewis followed his great mentor, George MacDonald. In a sermon on “The Temptation in the Wilderness,” MacDonald presented a quite different vision from today’s popular Christian spirituality: “A man does not live by his feelings any more than by bread, but by the Truth, that is, the Word, the Will, and the uttered Being of God.” Similarly, Lewis, built his near disdain for feelings on the conviction of God’s constancy. However we may feel, God’s love for us is certainly not subject to the vicissitudes of feelings: “Though our feelings come and go, God’s love for us does not.”
      When I visited Wheaton College’s Wade Collection, where Lewis’s own books are kept and are wonderfully available to researchers, I poured over Lewis’s own copy of George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons, I noted the places that Lewis underlined or set particular quotes in a type of index he created at the back of the book. In his sermon, “Suffered Unto Death,” MacDonald comments “A man does not live by his feelings any more than by bread, but by the Truth, that is, the Word, the Will, the uttered Being of God.” Lewis was marked by the insights of his mentor, including this in his anthology of MacDonald as well.
      Faith—as the rest of Christian behavior—is about the will, guided by reason. When Lewis addresses faith in Mere Christianity, he notes that faith and reason may be overcome by emotion and imagination, just as when the anesthesiologist puts a mask on our face, a “childish panic” may begin even if reason tells me that I have nothing to fear and that anesthetics are useful. And so, to be healed, we must submit to another.
      Similarly with love: In his section on Christian marriage, he warns his listeners (and later his readers) that we cannot stay with the thrill of “being in love” with anything:
People get from books the idea that if you have married the right person you may expect to go on ‘being in love’ for ever. As a result, when they find they are not, they think this proves they have made a mistake and are entitled to a change — not realising that, when they have changed, the glamour will presently go out of the new love just as it went out of the old one. In this department of life, as in every other, thrills come at the beginning and do not last. The sort of thrill a boy has at the first idea of flying will not go on when he has joined the R.A.F. and is really learning to fly. The thrill you feel on first seeing some delightful place dies away when you really go to live there. Does this mean it would be better not to learn to fly and not to live in the beautiful place? By no means. In both cases, if you go through with it, the dying away of the first thrill will be compensated for by a quieter and more lasting kind of interest. What is more (and I can hardly find words to tell you how important I think this), it is just the people who are ready to submit to the loss of the thrill and settle down to the sober interest, who are then most likely to meet new thrills in some quite different direction. The man who has learned to fly and become a good pilot will suddenly discover music; the man who has settled down to live in the beauty spot will discover gardening.
Here we meet that fundamental conviction that there is a progression: first thrill, then loss of thrill to be accompanied by hard work, then something really good, true happiness. I would also note—along the lines of experiences that all human beings share—Lewis uses flying and gardening, not playing the church organ and studying the Bible—to exemplify his point. I’m fairly certain he didn’t even have to make this decision. For him, all of life naturally fell under God’s watchful eye and grace.

This is, I think, one little part of what Christ meant by saying that a thing will not really live unless it first dies. It is simply no good trying to keep any thrill: that is the very worst thing you can do. Let the thrill go — let it die away — go on through that period of death into the quieter interest and happiness that follow — and you will find you are living in a world of new thrills all the time.... It is much better fun to learn to swim than to go on endlessly (and hopelessly) trying to get back the feeling you had when you first went paddling as a small boy.

Lewis warns us that feelings come and go, but “the quieter interest and happiness that follow” come later. And we ought not to miss them… despite, I'm afraid, how many do today, if they live by the tyranny of feelings.

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