An email hit my inbox recently, talking about C. S. Lewis’ famous 1944 Memorial Lecture at King’s College, University of London, The Inner Ring. It struck me so hard (in a good way) I had to go and read the whole lecture for myself, and find out a little more about the author.
Professor Lewis (Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University) is perhaps most famous for his religious writings, including Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters. It’s perhaps ironic that he moved from atheism to Anglican devotion as a man of 30-plus, persuaded (or at least influenced) over time at least in part by his close friend and fellow Cambridge professor, J. R. R. Tolkien, a life-long staunch Roman Catholic (Tolkien was disappointed in Lewis’ eventual choice of church).
But let’s talk about the lecture, what Lewis means by “The Inner Ring,” and what he has to say about it and the concept’s impact on human lives.
Are any of us born with no desire whatever to be a part of what’s going on? One of those “in the know,” a member of the exclusive club? Lewis doesn’t think so, and neither do I. And, of itself, that isn’t a bad thing – we want to be part of some groups that are naturally exclusive – our families, our friends and social networks, the firms we work for or build ourselves, our fitness groups, our book clubs, are all limited as to participants, and there’s absolutely no shame (and there can be pride) in belonging within those circles.
The danger comes when we diminish ourselves in order to be accepted into more and more exclusive, or more and more “Inner” rings. There’s always some sub-set, or “Inner Ring” we aren’t part of. And there are temptations to hide something we value in ourselves, if not indeed to act or speak contrary to that value, in order to join a more inner “Inner Ring” – to “pass,” to be accepted. There’s an element of what’s called “FOMO,” or “fear of missing out,” at play here.
All of us, at some point, will have to face rejection by a group we want to join – we aren’t invited to the party, our membership application to a club denied, and maybe that does hurt our feelings. But maybe it shouldn’t, and maybe it needn’t. Maybe we need to realign our priorities. Because, to set Groucho Marx’s well-known line on its head, maybe we shouldn’t care to be a part of any group that doesn’t want us as a member.
Running after reassurance that we aren’t missing out, that we’re part of the most exclusive group we can join, can easily become a toxic form of validation – it isn’t about our genuine, our best, selves, and we aren’t serving those selves when we give ourselves over to what is, in essence, status-seeking.
It was once all too common to marry for status, rather than from genuine love and a desire for the companionship of a unique and wonderful individual. Some people even today choose their friends for status (remember high school?), rather than true person-to-person liking and affinity.
Some seek status-careers, rather than choosing work we can commit our best selves, our best efforts, to, and giving that work those bests.
Toward the end of his lecture, C. S. Lewis comes down to the nitty-gritty – if we do give our best selves and best efforts to our work, we will eventually find ourselves in a fine and most exclusive “Inner Ring” without any effort to join other than the work we do. The ring is that of true crafters (Lewis calls them “craftsmen,” but that was in a bygone day). Crafters recognize one another – and understand their shared affinity.
If we choose as our friends those we truly like, whose company relaxes, warms, and stimulates our best selves, we are also members of an “Inner Ring” worth being part of.
And to protect that precious, true “Inner Ring,” we can eliminate as much as possible the active presence in our lives of individuals whose energy, rather than sparking our own, drains it. There are limitations to putting this into practice, obviously – we can’t always choose those we work with, and sometimes it may be a family member one finds toxic to be around.
But we can choose, judiciously and gratefully, to spend as much of our energy as possible on those who uplift us, and not on those who drag us down.
In the end, it seems to me that it all comes down to being true to ourselves, our best selves. In and of itself, that’s a satisfaction which cannot and will not be reached by seeking status, rather than humbly (and proudly, too!) giving our best to our work, our families, our friends.
How do you nurture your best self and stay true to it?
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Until next Wednesday –