Every year the scheduled reading for my classes works out a little differently. My ninth grade reads through Mere Christianity fairly slowly stretching the book out almost to Thanksgiving. Meanwhile, my 12th graders are blazing through The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, and The Abolition of Man. That’s a lot of C.S. Lewis and I read every word right along with them. Because I sometimes play with the order of the books for the seniors and because field trips, holidays, and things like Grandparents Day mix into the schedule, each year ends up being slightly different for me. I find myself reading different parts of Mere Christianity parallel to the other books at different points. This ends up teaching me something new each year. Teaching is a great way to learn.
The ninth graders just finished going through Book Three of Mere. We read and talked about morality and examined the seven virtues. Lewis takes great pains to emphasize the fact that real love is not a feeling but an act of the will. He goes so far as to say that if we are worried about not loving another person, or even if we have doubts about loving God, the answer is NOT found in trying to stir up feelings of love– whatever those may be–but rather in action. “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did.” And then he makes a promise which I have found to be true. “As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.” If you think about it, this is really the application of a simple biblical principle, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”(Matthew 6:21) But Lewis has a way of taking those principles and making them accessible–sometimes to the point of making us uncomfortable.
This week the seniors are reading the first chapter of The Abolition of Man, “Men Without Chests.” It’s hard, real hard; but it’s good, so good! His basic premise is that the will, the seat of conscience, is being removed from man. He talks a great deal about education and he points out that, in Aristotle’s view, “the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.” Woah! That’s a thought that gets our postmodern juices flowing. To us, that smacks of brainwashing and the removal of individualism. Certainly among all of our many human rights, the right to like and dislike what we naturally like and dislike is sacred. It’s part of what makes us who we are! We need to take a deep breath, though, and consider. Is it natural for us to like all of the things that are good for us? No. It’s also not natural to dislike the things that are bad for us. There are obvious examples like broccoli and Twinkies, but also more subtle/controversial ones like reading and binging on Netflix.
What happens to us if we don’t learn to like and dislike what we ought? Well, Lewis says that losing this ability to train our wills may eventually lead to the end of man as we know him. Seems like going a bit far? Lewis says that man is a three-part creature:Head (Mind), Chest(Will), and Belly(Emotion). He posits that man functions best when his mind rules his emotions through the will. I’ve been thinking about this and it makes the most sense to me when I think about running.
People who haven’t seen me in a while often ask me what happened. How did you lose all that weight? When I tell them that I started running, they often reply, “I wish I liked to run.” I usually just smile and choose not to reveal the truth: I don’t really like to run. In fact, most mornings when I wake up at 4:45, the last thing I want to do is leave the warmth of my bed and go out and run five miles. There are occasional exceptions to this rule. Once in a great while I will have a day when everything clicks perfectly-the sound track is stimulating, the air is cool and bracing, the stars are brilliant and I feel like I am flying. The morning after these unusual runs I pop out of bed eager to repeat the experience. Since that never happens, however, I return to dragging myself into my running clothes on the morrow. That’s real life. So, why will you find me out running at 5:00 am most mornings? I run because I like the results of running. I feel SO MUCH BETTER! I have energy. I don’t get sick as often. My appetite is regulated. My emotions are more stable. It is very much easier to find clothes that fit. Pretty much everything about life is better if I run. I have learned to like running for its benefits and sometimes I actually like it for itself–mostly in the last half mile of the day.
This week as I was working through the first chapter of Abolition and thinking about going through it with my students next week, I realized once again how prophetic Lewis was. We live in a society ruled by the belly. Look at Facebook, or don’t if it’s too painful right now. Emotion, emotion, emotion–mostly fear and anger–is what you will see. Or just go out in the world. This year as we were traveling to Italy I was struck by just how angry everyone seemed to be. From our fellow travelers to the flight attendants, there were almost no happy campers. We are losing the ability to rule our emotions through our will. We get cut off in traffic–our rights have been violated! The wrath we feel is perfectly justified. However, if we lose the ability to control that anger, the roads will be anything but safe.
Most people who currently have a driver’s license understand this principle, but how long is it going to last? Many children are not being trained to control their emotions. Let’s be honest. Teaching kids to like and dislike what they ought is very difficult. Parenting requires tons of grace. The last thing I want to do is heap more guilt on the heads of parents. Parenting in 2016 is so much harder than it was in 1988. Social media alone puts pressure on moms today that would have crushed me flat. But guys, kids do not naturally like what is best for them. You’ve got to teach them how to control the will. Controlling the will is not the same as crushing it. A child’s will should never be broken, but rather gently molded, guided, and trained. This is hard work. Like I said before it needs lots of grace, requires tons of prayer and I’m afraid it means that sometimes your kids are going to be angry with you, but it’s essential. Children cannot be allowed to decide everything for themselves. Sure, let them choose which outfit to wear sometimes. Let them make choices between various vegetables and give them the freedom to choose activities occasionally, but kids won’t necessarily make the best choice if you let them pick where to go to school or church or whether they are going to do their summer reading or not.
My oldest son called me into the bathroom one day when he was five. He was sitting on the toilet and he had something he wanted to discuss. “Sit on the tub, Mama.”, he directed. I did so. “I have been thinking a lot about something,” he said. “I have decided that I am not going to learn to read. It’s too just too hard and it makes too much time.” I proceeded to explain all of the reasons he needed to be able to read in order to function in society. He had answers for all my objections. He was going to live in the wilderness. He would grow his own food or live off the land. He was going to find a live dinosaur. I would see. He would be famous and successful without reading. I tried pulling the God card. “You have to be able to read the Bible.” He’d thought about that, too. He would listen to tapes and memorize scripture. You can’t be against hiding God’s Word in the heart! It was a well-considered argument, but when the interview was over I said, “Sorry Bud, you’ve got to learn to read like the rest of us.” And he did, and he liked it. Now he runs a school where they coerce other little children into reading. Go figure.
As all of this has been swirling around in my head, it occurred to me that the principle about love that Lewis teaches in Mere Christianity actually applies to the problem he outlines in The Abolition of Man. The way to learn to like and dislike what we ought is through action–an act of the will. When I act as if I like running, I find that I come to like the results so much that I am able to will myself out of bed each morning. When I act as if I don’t like soda, by not drinking it, I soon lose my taste for it and if I do drink it occasionally I find it way too sweet. This makes it easier to say no the next time.
There will always be things and people that we like more than others. We’re individuals after all, but we CAN learn to like and dislike those things that we ought. In fact, we must do so if we are to survive as a race.