Putting feelings in their place

Reflections from C.S. Lewis on distrusting emotional highs

After reading C. S. Lewis’ autobiography, Surprised by Joy, a lady in Salt Lake City, Utah, wrote its author. Lewis responded on September 12, 1960.

The whole lesson of his life, he stated, “has been that no ‘methods of stimulation’ are of any lasting use.” Indeed, they resemble drugs, in that “a stronger dose is needed each time.” Eventually, one’s body becomes immune to any dose.

Lewis adamantly believed that “[w]e must not bother about thrills at all.” Instead, and this is the crux of his missive, “Do the present duty - bear the present pain - enjoy the present pleasure - and leave emotions and ‘experiences’ to look after themselves.”

My initial thought was that Lewis’ letter reflects how he dealt with the loss of his wife, Joy, who died earlier that year. However, my hasty interpretation was tempered by the responses of several Lewis scholars who studied the letter at my request.

Sheldon Vanauken, author of A Severe Mercy, suggested that Lewis knew very well that many past religions (eg., the pagan gods of Rome), as well as many contemporary churches, sought to bring people to an emotional “high” which, in the end, drained them and failed to stimulate.

Lewis wrote in The Four Loves:

"Say your prayers in a garden early, ignoring steadfastly the dew, the birds and the flowers, and you will come away overwhelmed by its freshness and joy; go there in order to be overwhelmed and, after a certain age, nine times out of ten nothing will happen to you.”

According to Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College, Lewis “urges his usual objective and self-forgetful rather than subjective and self-regarding attitude.” Furthermore, Lewis’ letter bespeaks the teaching of the Saints–“detachment from ‘sensible consolations’ - and foretaste of and training for the ecstatic self-forgetfulness of Heaven....”

Watchman Nee, the well-known Chinese pastor, theologian and author, told a parable about a trio of men–Fact, Faith and Feeling–walking on a narrow wall. As long as Faith kept his eyes on Fact, all three proceed nicely. But when Faith turned around to see how Feeling was doing, the two had a great fall.

The lesson: “do not look back to search for the glorious sensation,” Nee suggested. “Simply follow the facts.” This, for Kreeft, was “better advice than libraries of ingrown eyeball therapy.”

Distrusting emotional highs

Walter Hooper, one of the world’s leading authorities on the life and works of Lewis, commented: “It might almost be said that one of the things Lewis distrusted most was thrills.”

In his first prose work, The Pilgrim’s Regress, Lewis has a character say of “thrill”: “It is only a foretaste of that which the real Desirable will be when you have found it.... You must not try to keep the raptures: they have done their work.”

This “thrill” business also comes up in Lewis’ classic of Christian apologetics, Mere Christianity, where he writes:

"No feeling can be relied on to last in its full intensity, or even to last at all. Knowledge can last, principles can last, habits can last; but feelings come and go.... [I]f you decide to make thrills your regular diet and try to prolong them artificially, they will all get weaker and weaker, and fewer and fewer, and you will be a bored, disillusioned old man for the rest of your life.” That’s not how I want to age!

In a letter of December 22, 1942 to his friend Sister Penelope, Lewis said, “I always tell people not to bother about ‘feelings’ in their prayers.” As late as May 15, 1952, he wrote another correspondent, “Excitement, of whatever sort, never lasts. This is the push to start you off on your first bicycle: you’ll be left to lots of dogged pedalling later on.”

The advice Lewis gave the Utahan woman, quoted at the start of this article, sounds like the sort he had given himself at the time of his conversion, when he first knew what “Joy” was about, and then gave others throughout his life, in books and in letters, for it comprises some of the best and most needed advice he ever gave. And, as Walter Hooper quipped, “It’s advice that I need new doses of all the time!”

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About the author


ChristianWeek Columnist

Following a 35-year career as an ordained minister, Burton K. Janes is now a freelance editor, writer and online instructor. He lives in Newfoundland where he maintains his own blog burtonkjanes.com