Dangerous drives

I really like this speech by C.S. Lewis. It’s about the tendency to form “Inner Rings” - informal groups and hierarchies, impossible to pin down precisely, but which exist everywhere - in all schools, organisations, and societies. Lewis argues that the drive to be “on the inside” of some Inner Ring is a more fundamental human drive than most people think. He also thinks it’s a dangerous one.

“Unless you take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life, from the first day on which you enter your profession until the day when you are too old to care.”

Why does Lewis think this desire is so dangerous? He gives two reasons:

First, that, “of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.” For almost all people, he says, the choice that might lead them down a bad path will not be an obvious or dramatic one. It will be “the hint of something which is not quite in accordance with the technical rules of fair play: something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand...” It will be something which, a friend tells you, “we always do.” And even if something feels a bit off, you might ignore that feeling and do it anyway, because if you were to refuse, you’d feel thrown out - no longer part of that “we”, thrust out of that Inner Ring you so desperately want to be part of.

The second reason Lewis gives is subtler - but I think perhaps all the more dangerous. For “as long as you are governed by that desire,” Lewis cautions, “you will never get what you want... until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain.” If you seek recognition within a group simply for the sake of the boost you get from being an “insider” - and not because that group provides you with something you value - then you will never be satisfied. Once you’re “in”, the circle will quickly lose the charm it had from the outside. You’ll soon find some new, smaller, more alluring, or higher-status clique to pine after.

So what’s the alternative?

“The quest of the Inner Ring will break your heart unless you break it. But if you break it, a surprising result will follow. If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it.

And if in your spare time you consort simply with the people you like, you will again find that you have come unawares to a real inside: that you are indeed snug and safe at the center of something which, seen from without, would look exactly like an Inner Ring. But the difference is that its secrecy is accidental, and its exclusiveness a by-product, and no one was led thither by the lure of the esoteric: for it is only four or five people who like one another meeting to do things that they like. This is friendship.”

I think, more generally, we have motives that point at things we actually value, and motives that are more illusory - and the latter can be dangerously alluring. We’re driven to impress, achieve, make money, acquire status, be on “the inside” of a particular group. These things feel good, especially in the short-term, but they’re deceptive - they’re never really satisfied, and we’ll just keep chasing them. These drives can be harmful, as Lewis suggests, because they can lead not-bad people to do bad things. But I think the even greater harm of these drives is that they distract us from what actually matters - the drive to be impressive distracts us from actually getting good at something, the drive to be “on the inside” gets in the way of forming genuinely rewarding relationships.

It seriously worries me how much of the time most of us spend chasing things like achievement, status, recognition - and how little we spend thinking about what we actually value: what we’d find rewarding in a job, what kinds of people make us feel good, what we really want in a relationships. It’s easy, in a sense, to just go after the job that makes the most money, the friendship group that makes us look coolest, the partner who is most attractive. Asking ourselves what we actually want and value in life, and then trying to find that, is much harder.