Part two in a series: Acceptance And the "Inner Rings."
The theologian and author gave a powerful sermon in 1940 about the human struggle to get inside the many "Inner Rings" of society, politicians, neighborhood and family. Lewis points out these groups go by many names and configurations – elites, clubs, societies, organizations, they exist at work, in schools, in the arts and literature. The insidious nature of the "inner rings" play on our hearts and desires he says, but his point is to warn against the futility of giving our lives to pursuing acceptance into such exclusive and elite circles, and he cautions it is often much worse to be accepted than not.
First, Lewis warns that a desire to be accepted into these rings – we all know them – is that such a desire often causes us to do things that are against our values and ideals in order to find acceptance within them. I learn this on a personal level every time I go near a literary organization or gather – for much of my life I have wanted to get inside this ring, increasingly I realize that they are not the place for me or for my values. I cannot do what I would have to do to be accepted there, and if I did, I would be selling my soul. I could never have attempted my new book tour within such a circle, could never had done it the way I did. On a literary panel, a writer told young aspiring writers the best thing they could to do make it in the new world of publishing was read poetry for 10 minutes a night. I am no enemy of poetry, but it broke my heart to hear this useless given to a bunch of young would-be writers heading into a world that has changed almost beyond recognition. I left the conference understanding it was not where I belonged.
Secondly Lewis argues that the desire for outsiders to be admitted to such inner circles represents a desire that can never be satisfied. What happens once accepted? We quickly find that the people we thought could provide us with identity, value, worth, acceptance do not have the power to do that – and after each "ring," there is another right behind it waiting for us to want in. If you want to join a musical society because you like music, he writes, there is a real possibility of satisfaction. If you want to be in the know, be inside, be accepted, your pleasure will be short-lived. The circle cannot have from within the charm it had from the outside, by the very act of admitting you the ring has lost its magic.
I see acceptance in the animals I live with. I see it in Mickey, who accepts the boundaries of his life. I see it in my hospice work, where people know they are at the edge of life and only want to move out of life in dignity and comfort. What freedom they feel when they accept where they are.
I just finished reading a book by Mark Leibovich about Washington, it's called "Two Parties And A Funeral – Plus Plenty of Valet Parking – in America's Gilded Capital." The book is packaged in a sort of flip and smart-ass way, trying to be less serious than it is, but the story Leibovich – a reporter for the New York Times – tells is very serious, it is discouraging and dispiriting, it describes Washington as a hive of "inner rings," media people connected to political people connected to lobbyists, contractors, think tanks, producers, elected officials, publicists, party-givers and influence peddlers. Everyone in Washington is either in an "inner ring" or trying to get in, everybody seems rich and busy, nobody seems honest, happy or grounded in the idea of service. Leibovich paints a portrait of a gilded capital today, corrupt and disconnected from the people it serves, there was nothing cute or funny about it.
I thought of the "inner rings" when I read the book, Leibovich even mentions C.S. Lewis's sermon in one chapter. I was a reporter for the Washington Post for a few years, I remember feeling panicked at the prospect of staying there, I knew the city would suck me up and spit me out, I fled, or perhaps was driven out, I have never regretted it. Almost every journalist I ever knew went the other way, wanted badly to be there.
Lewis's essays and life itself has led me to consider the meaning of acceptance in my life. I have a friend whose 97-year-old mother, who has been ailing and in pain for years, is dying. "I can't accept it," she says "I love my mother so much, she has always been there for me, I just am not willing to let her go." How sad, I thought, doesn't she know that we will all die, that we are not God, that a life fully lived is a sacred thing, and that death deserves to be respected, just as life does? What did she think would happen, that her mother would stay alive forever because she loves her so? I wondered what her mother would say.
I am learning acceptance more. I am a good writer, I will never be a great writer, I will never make it into that circle. I will never have a lot of money and the freedom to do whatever I want wherever I want to do it. I understand that death is closer than it is far away for me, I want to live well and die well, and accept the sanctity of human existence – life and death, forever joined. I will not buy into the notion that I can live a meaningful life forever, or that technology can or should keep me alive beyond my time.
In exchange for learning acceptance, I have kept myself intact. This does not mean I am better than anyone else, it means I am who I am. For better or worse, I am learning to be me, to accept me, to be honest about me. I see the deal clearly that Lewis writes about – the inner ring versus the soul. Speaking for myself, I can only have one or the other.
I'm good with my choice.