Fear: Screwtape Chapter 2

Brief Personal Update

I wrote this all up and dragged my heels on editing and posting it. Since I initially drafted this entry, one of my cats has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and it’s given me a lot more to think about in terms of fear, both of the future and what my reactions say about me as a person. I will try to follow up with all of that in a subsequent post. It’s been a tough few days.

Chapter summary

Up top we discover that Wormwood’s patient has converted to Christianity, and despite this not necessarily meaning that Wormwood has lost the battle, he will still be punished within the infernal bureaucracy.

Screwtape instructs Wormwood to find hope in the fact that people’s mental and bodily habits tend to work against them. The familiarity of his neighborhood and recognizing his fellow congregants can be leveraged to breed contempt. This contempt will prevent the patient from forming deep or lasting community, and further entrench his myopic and improvised worldview that will lead him on the path to Hell.

Our natural affections and inclinations do not bring us toward our goals, worldly or spiritual. Free will dictates that we must decide, and then continue deciding each and every day, to pursue what is worthy and meaningful.

Screwtape notes that once humans pass through the initial dry spell of hard work when entering a new practice, they become less reliant on fickle emotion. Wormwood should endeavor not to let his patient get to that point.

Reading through the lens of fear

I see Screwtape here pressing on the patient’s fear of emotional vulnerability. Opening yourself up to the divine, admitting you’ve been wrong, and welcoming purposeful community into your life are all things that reasonably inspire fear when you open yourself up to them. Making yourself truly open and vulnerable requires that you open yourself to the possibility of rejection.

As always, Lewis means this specifically in the context of religious conversion, but it can be broadly applied to pretty much any new endeavor. Joining a new gym, submitting poetry to a contest, showing up to a meetup group for the first time, applying for graduate studies, or going on a blind date all  require the same openness to rejection in order to see any real payoff. But the fear is reasonable. You might hate your date or get rejected from all the grad programs you apply to. Fear is a companion, encouraging us to temper our expectations and make backup plans. Fear is important. If it fires correctly, it can alert you when the meetup you’re attending is a front for an MLM or tip you off not to walk to the parking lot alone because of the way that guy in yoga class was staring at you.

But while Screwtape doesn’t name check fear in this chapter, it feels like he’s saying you can use that fear to build a wall instead of letting it walk beside you. Behind a wall of fear, it’s easy to build up false confidence, unearned smugness. Fear by itself is a neutral tool, but it’s easy for the demonic bureaucracy to wield because our instincts to preserve our worldview and ensure our own safety run deep.

It’s difficult to confront where I’m facing fear in my own life. Admitting to fear means admitting to a weakness, and talking about it publicly means that it’s a potential attack vector to all the imaginary enemies out there who wish me harm. We’re hard wired to protect our vulnerabilities from public view. But I’ve been living with a lot of fear recently. Of course, there’s the obvious fear of disease. It dominates everything in this Hellscape we live in. But that fear is reasonable, evidence based, and literally a matter of life and death. While the degree to which we lock our lives down is up for reasonable debate, we can’t live our lives like we used to, and that has profound altering effects.

But saying that I’m afraid of catching COVID feels like a shallow observation. Clearly I have more fears that are driving my actions. For example, I’m getting this blog post out over two weeks later than I originally intended. I didn’t get as much writing done in January as I wanted in general. I’ve always had a bit of a procrastination problem. Some of that is rooted in ADHD and depression, but a lot of it comes from a place of anxiety. Actually committing to doing things is hard. Creative work is hard. Doing coding for my job is hard. Not necessarily on a mechanical level, but because every time I sit down to commit ideas to reality, that comes with a number of risks. First, the product might not be as good as the nebulous idea I have in my head. I mean, it’s pretty much guaranteed not to live up to whatever half baked ideas I have before I start working in earnest. Second, every time I make a decision, it implicitly cuts off all possible futures in which I make a different decision. Sitting down with this sacred reading, and then writing up posts about it makes those ideas real, and in some ways the real will always be less satisfying than the ephemeral idea from which it originated.

This tension between the dream of doing something and the disappointment of reality is exactly what Screwtape encourages Wormwood to exploit. I think it’s been a bit hard for me to write up this chapter because I feel like this is an attack vector to which I’m particularly susceptible. I don’t necessarily like what that says about me. It’s easy to be deterred by the boring reality of butt-in-seat hard work, the creative dry spells, and the fear that my brain is actually empty and I never have and never will have anything interesting to say. Procrastination is a way of protecting myself from the fear and disappointment I know will exist when I’m forced to confront the gap between expectation and reality. But it’s a false dichotomy. Something that exists is always better than something imagined, even if it doesn’t seem like it at the beginning.

Also, this project carries with it a substantial fear that I’ll move beyond introspection to pointless, self-indulgent navel gazing. I am afraid that we started on the wrong side of that line and are only getting further away from it. But giving it up isn’t going to accomplish anything. Chin up and all that.

Next steps

Next post we’ll have another Lectio Divina reading (see linked post for a primer on Lectio Divina), this time from chapter 2. I’ll probably also touch on how my recent cat news alters this chapter’s reading for me. I will make sure to clearly mark it out so that if you do not want to read about pet illness, you can safely skip past it.

Last time for Lectio Divina I closed my eyes and ran my finger down the page until stopping simply felt right, but this method is going to inherently bias toward sentences in the middle of a page, and against the first and last pages of any given chapter. So I think I’m going to write a little Python script that will pull out a random sentence from the chapter and see how that goes.

I also would like to do some sort of transformative work for every chapter, like I did with the blackout poem in chapter 1. However, I think doing a blackout poem every time will get old, and I’m not as drawn to that idea reading through chapter 2. I might leverage my Python skills again. About a year ago I took a workshop with Lighthouse Writers on procedural poetry, and the instructor advised building a word bank of every fifth word in a given text, and to compose a poem from that selection of words. I figure I can run through the text of chapter 2, remove stop words like the, and, it, etc. and build a word bank from there. I still feel somewhat intimidated by poetry, but I’ve been trying to read more of it the last couple weeks, and even if what I do isn’t any good, it could still be a fun exercise. Right?

It’s very hard to give up the dream of perfection. But creation is an act of defiance against the fear that I might produce something bad.

Going to try to post a bit more consistently, and stop letting my fear get the better of me. We’ll see how that works out.

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