Friday, September 16, 2022

It's When You Stop Trying

I have some disdain for those who are attempting to crash the Inner Ring.  Lewis was right that while the Inner Ring may be an unavoidable and almost neutral aspect of a functioning society, the desire to be in it is an enormous temptation. "Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things." It catches us unawares because the rings are so plentiful that the very desire to resist being one of that kind who wishes to be in Ring A, B, or C will make us especially susceptible to the temptations of Ring D. We are proud of not being one of the mob and even brag about it, inching to the final boundaries of a smaller, more prestigious mob.

I wrote before the conference about those who clearly want to be in the CS Lewis Inner Ring, as I can tell from their statements on podcasts, and hoped that I would not run into any of them.  Of course one was the first person I saw, because God likes reminding us that our time is not really our own and work of one kind or another might be needed. He turned out to be a nice enough young man. We should not presume to design too much of our lives. 

I saw many of the attendees gathering around the speakers and thought I knew what was up with them. (The men gathered a bit more around the female presenters, which I suppose is a different spiritual problem.) Yet I found that on the second day I also had a desire to go over and strike up conversations with them.  I told myself it was because the knowledge base of the attendees was lower than expected and I desired particular exchanges they were more like to have worthwhile information on, but I did catch myself up short. Did I have disdain for those who sought the Inner Ring because I am secretly like them? I couldn't rule it out.  The heart is deceitful in all things, after all. So I doubled down on my intent to do nothing showy, nothing calculated to bring me closer to the center. 

I realised with a start that I could have been part of the Inner Ring had I chosen it years ago. In the years Lewis was still unpopular among academics I would have had enough knowledge (comparatively) and gotten in on the ground floor. Siskind discussed the cycle of a rising subculture not long ago .  Not all the places at that table were taken, and the level of necessary scholarship was nowhere near as high. I played out what life might have been and decided it would have been bad for me and was grateful I had been spared this temptation. I would have fancied myself much more than I was. Insufferable might have been a word strongly associated with me. I felt less disdainful of the others, as they likely are not near so bad as I would have been.

I wrote years ago about the difference between trying to appear have varied and eccentric tastes in music versus actually having them. It was a joke recognised even by the hippies in the 60s, that those who wanted to flaunt not wearing a suit - or becoming an indistinguishable worker - to show how much of an individual we were by being dressed in near-uniforms of tight jeans, facial hair, and bright colors. Playing guitar, getting the slang right. The eccentrics were suddenly the same old same old, the new normal. It was a worry for me when becoming a Christian that I was going to have to "be like everyone else" in that group - a group that was not especially cool. (I plunged ahead anyway because that's how I'm wired.  If a thing is true you simply have to live with it.) I was fortunate to encounter the advice by CS Lewis that Christians were in fact more individual, at least potentially.  following the world and the flesh (or worse) was to gradually embrace a greater sameness. It's when you stop trying to be different that you actually find that you are.

That is what happened here. I stepped back from even small efforts to talk with the important people, and somehow I ended up with them by accident. At the close of the conference I struck up a conversation with a young (late 30s) man who turned out to have gone to William and Mary. We instantly had many things to talk about, and as we were breaking up he suggested having lunch together in Black Mountain on the way out.  I met him there and he had invited others - the host of the major CS Lewis podcast, a presenter, and the tech/recording engineer who is putting together the upcoming events. And it turns out the young man is an editor of An Unexpected Journal, which he called a pop-academic journal. The Inner Ring came to me when I stopped seeking it. Ironic.

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