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"Humans are amphibians - half spirit and half animal. As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time." -- CS Lewis

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Danger of Rings

Humans are social beings. It is in our nature, it is unavoidable. God created us to live in community, as we saw in Plantinga’s chapter on Creation, to emulate the divine dance (“perichoresis”) that the Father, Son, and Spirit delight in perpetually. Fellowship is evidently not a bad thing in and of itself.

However, CS Lewis speaks of a particular “danger” that this irresistible leaning presents, which he calls “the Inner Ring” in his speech of the same name. We find Lewis addressing the students of the University of London on the dangers of this social phenomenon, which Lewis most accurately describes as “the second or unwritten system,” the one that is culturally understood but not explicitly stated. The system is that we tend to create closed groups to which we allocate some kind of merit or prestige, and subsequently others wish to join this “inner ring” but find it difficult. It is a ring of comfort, and the members are reluctant to tack on anyone else because such an act would rupture its coziness. “Exclusion is no accident;” stipulates Lewis, “it is the essence.”

This rings so very true of high school and college life. Cliques form right and left, sealing themselves off from incoming people. I know that I myself am very much guilty of going along with this kind of mentality. High school did not present as many opportunities for this. However, coming to college in a new country entirely and entering a completely new and somewhat foreign setting, I would constantly worry that I would simply recluse and never find good friends; now that I’m here and have indeed found great friends, it is so easy just to stick with this comfortable little group and feel safe. Of course, it is definitely a positive thing to have a circle of close, supportive peers, but you must not let the group become your identity. You are you, not “you plus them.” Inner rings are not intrinsically bad, but must not be allowed to dominate your view of yourself.

The other danger that such rings present, as Lewis says, is that once you finally do break into them, you will not be satisfied in being in it forever. You subsequently begin to long for another more “important” group, one higher up on the social, professional or intellectual food chain. And this danger threatens our integrity and us as people even more than the first. Since this desire to “be in the know” is so strong in us, we will be tempted to compromise our own morals and values to join that higher inner circle. Thus, we can get into the ring, but as Lewis says, “you will be a scoundrel.” The employee so desperate for promotion in a company will go against business policy and cheat a coworker on behalf of someone in that ring to hoist himself into their ranks; a student will cheat on an exam in order to be included in the “intelligent” circle. Lewis writes that “the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad ma do very bad things,” and “The quest for [it] will break your heart until you break it.”

Such desires are detrimental not only to yourself, but also to others, and thus this inner ring destroys positive community. And in the end, “until you conquer your fear of being an outsider [to the inner ring], an outsider you will remain.” We can always continue wishing to climb the ladder higher and higher, but once we get high enough, we realize just how shaky and unstable the ladder becomes. But the ladder bids us higher still, and disappears into the clouds along with yourself.

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