C.S. Lewis, on “Excessive Selfness”


Once again I can’t hope to improve on, or even approach, Uncle Jack’s ingenious writing, but I must at least attempt to comment on this excerpt from his correspondence with Edward Lofstrom. The following is from The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 3:

10 June 1962

You are of course perfectly right in defining your problem (which is also mine and everyone’s) as ‘excessive selfness’. But perhaps you don’t fully realise how far you have got by so defining it. All have this disease; fortunate are the minority who know they have it. To know that one is dreaming is to be already nearly awake, even if, for the present, one can’t wake up fully. And you have actually got further than that. You have got beyond the illusion (very common) that to recognise a chasm is the same thing as building a bridge over it.

The frustrating thing about sharing the same problem as everyone else is, that fact doesn’t make it seem any less acute. The last thing I want to hear from a counselor is, “That’s a common problem; don’t let it bother you.”

I don’t care how many others struggle with it! Fact is, it bothers me! Okay?

Any “selfness” is excessive, as it causes literally all the world’s problems. It was Adam’s sin, and all of us carry it with pride. Just look at little children; their first words are “mine,” and “no,” except for my elder daughter Bethany, whose first word was, “button.”

From then on throughout life, all sins come from that one foundational sin. Is there any wonder why it so concerned Mister Lofstrom and me, and I hope, you?

Your danger now is that of being hypnotised by the mere sight of the charm, of constantly looking at this excessive selfness.

Boy! Can I relate to that constant self-examination which, curiously enough, my acquaintance with my Savior severely aggravates. One who has always suffered chronic sickness doesn’t know what it is to be well. But give him just one day of wellness and he’ll never again be happy in sickness. So, back to Mr. Lofstrom’s issue:

The important thing now is to go steadily on acting, so far as you can—and you certainly can to some extent, however small—as if it wasn’t there. You can, and I expect you daily do—behave with some degree of unselfishness. You can and do make some attempt at prayer. The continual voice which tells you that your best actions are secretly filled with subtle self-regards, and your best prayers still wholly egocentric—must for the most part be simply disregarded—as one disregards the impulse to keep on looking under the bandage to see whether the cut is healing. If you are always fidgeting with the bandage, it never will.

The enemy of our souls relishes such constant introspection, knowing, as he does, that we will never find anything good there. Instead, we must keep looking up to our Lord, the Author and Finisher of our faith.

What Lewis calls, “acting,” is not hypocrisy, but simply the practice of trying to live up to the standard revealed to us in Christ. We must develop the holiness-habit, to overcome the sin-habits acquired over our years as sinners.

Imagine yourself behind the wheel of a car, driving down the highway at speed. Do you stay straight with the road by watching the white line whizzing by next to your front fender? Of course not! If you do that, you will be all over the road, and it will prevent your seeing situations up ahead that will soon be in your lap. Do you study the gauges on the dashboard, read a book, or text a friend? At highway speeds the briefest distraction from traffic is enough to kill you. Walk through life as if you’re driving on the highway. Your life depends on it.

Enough with the safe driving lecture, and my commentary. I’ll close with the balance of Lewis’ excerpt, as he said it best.

A text you should keep much is mind is I John iii, 20: ‘If our heart condemns us God is greater than our heart.’ I sometimes pray ‘Lord give me no more and no less self-knowledge than I can at this moment make a good use of.’ Remember He is the artist and you are only the picture. You can’t see it. So quietly submit to be painted—i.e., keep on fulfilling all the obvious duties of your station (you really know quite well enough what they are!), asking forgiveness for each failure and then leaving it alone. You are in the right way. Walk—don’t keep on looking at it.

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