Exploring our daily battle in Mere Christianity — A book review
It may sound contradictory to follow New Year's Resolutions when I just confessed that I'm enjoying being enough just as I am, but there is one kind of goal I'll always follow:
I will always strive to feel more like the person I really am, instead of who I think I should be.
So, in my quest to read 1 "important" book per month, I'm happy to report January is complete!
For January, I chose C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity.
A friend lent me this book years ago, and it sat on my shelf as one of those "maybe one day" kind of books. But the more time passed, more and more friends recommended I read it. I even came across its name in other books I was reading. After enough mentions of it, it felt like more than just serendipity, and it was time to dive in.
I expected it to be a difficult read, but Lewis's tone was surprisingly so conversational! The book did take a turn for the theological at the very end (and I ended up re-reading more passages that I'd like to admit) but it was worth powering through.
I'd love to share a few of the most important points I learned from the book. Please excuse my excessive use of passages straight from the book, but they're just too good to not include! :-)
What I learned
I would've loved this book to be an easy-to-read, easy-to-forget kind of book because that would be easier... But this book was far from it. It's impact on me is growing by the day—which is one part scary, one part awesome.
Here's what's changed me the most:
1. Forget your ego
If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know my issues with the ego. (See here and here and here.) It's no coincidence that the fight against the ego is present in every step I take as a "seeker." This book is no exception.
Lewis mentions the ego in terms of pride, explaining that it presents itself as competition.
We've all grown up to compare ourselves to others. Whether its how many likes a picture gets on Instagram or how much money there is in the bank, we're always looking over our shoulders at how other people live their lives. Lewis thinks of it this way, though:
"Once competition vanishes, pride vanishes."
So, if we stop comparing ourselves to others and competing with them, our egos will fall by the wayside. But do we have to stop trying to improve?
Lewis states that, once our ego-centric competing is out of the picture, our natural instinct of helping and serving others will resurface.
Our search for self-improvement is best focused on serving others, instead of serving ourselves and our egos.
My status: Working hard on this, but it's easier in some areas of my life than others.
For the past 7+ years of my life, exercise has been an integral part of my daily routine—but not for the reasons you'd imagine. I work out to be more able and present for my family. Before I was even sure I wanted to have kids, I envisioned being healthy for my family, sweating on the treadmill thinking, "I want to run, play and live long with my family."
But in other areas of my life, working on myself is purely an ego move. I grew up using my "smarts" and "accomplishments" to gain recognition and love, and it's a hard habit to break, but the past year has been good practice. I've exchanged metrics like how much money I make for how many emails I get from people who resonated with my writing.
2. then, Forget yourself some more
A few days ago, my good friend Stefy Cohen shared this quote:
“Be brave enough to live creatively. The creative is the place where no one else has ever been. You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. You cannot get there by bus, only by hard work, risking and by not quite knowing what you are doing. What you will discover will be wonderful: Yourself.” — Alan Alda
And this journey to discovering our true selves resonated with a part of Mere Christianity that absolutely baffled me at first. Because if it were up to Lewis, this is how we'd go about that treasure hunt:
"Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it."
He even goes on to say:
"What we try to keep for ourselves is just what we are sure to lose."
I'm sure I'll get parts of this wrong, but I take this to mean that when we focus on serving others and letting our fearful egos die, what will surface is our true magnificent self. Especially when it comes to our creativity. It's so easy to keep our gifts locked up for fear of judgement or ridicule, but the moment we break past these imaginary barriers is when we feel most alive and content.
On top of serving others, shedding our egos will serve us, as well, by helping us become more of our true selves.
What a handy little byproduct, that. :-)
My status: Making steady progress on this, which I'm happy about.
I feel good about how much of myself I'm letting fly when it comes to my work—writing Make, recording podcast episodes, writing these articles, taking photos, etc. And I'm also feeling pretty good about how much of myself I'm giving up and sharing with my family—with my husband and son, my friendships, and more.
It feels like I've been practicing giving of myself for what seems like forever, but it's a daily battle.
Which leads me to...
3. The daily battle is normal / everything
No matter how long I've spent reading about mindfulness and practicing it, most of the time I'm just not in the present moment. And guess what happens in those moments? Automatic reactions, which are usually negative—like snapping at someone who cut me off in the supermarket line or spreading gossip about someone I know.
It ain't pretty.
Lewis's take on this is the following:
"Surely what a man does when he is caught off guard is the best evidence for what sort of man he is?"
Ouch. He takes it one step further, explaining that our negative reactions are proof that we haven't finished our self-work. He shares about his own process:
"Apparently the rats of resentment and vindictiveness are always there in the cellar of my soul."
But the battle to improve, to drop these negative emotions, the "rats" that Lewis talks about is a daily battle, describing it like this:
“That is why the real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it. It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.”
Christian or not, this is true for every person I've every spoken to. You wake up in the morning and your mind instantly becomes a madhouse. It happens to me every morning, as soon as I wake up to my toddler's babbling in his crib—my peace of mind evaporates just as my eyelids flip open.
The battle to drop our egos, serve others and become our true selves is a battle we fight every day, every waking moment.
I'll be honest, though... When I read all this, I was left feeling a bit confused. How exactly will I know when I'm on the right track, I wondered? Or, even worse, how should I proceed, like, today?
"Fine feelings, new insights, greater interest in 'religion' mean nothing unless they make our actual behavior better; just as in an illness 'feeling better' is not much good if the thermometer shows that your temperature is still going up."
Once I read that, I knew I had to focus on my actions.
My status: Working at becoming aware of and journaling about the "rats" I haven't gotten rid yet.
Journaling is the best way I know to explore what Lewis calls the "cellar of my soul", so I set weekly reminders on my phone to sit down and journal about what I feel needs further exploring. I'm far from perfect, but I find great solace in the fact that every day is a fresh start, a new opportunity.
PS. I know this book review was long, but I hope it was helpful to someone out there. :-)
Up next: important book for february
My book for February will be: The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything by James Martin.
I had originally chosen a different book for this month, but I changed my mind at the last minute because of the impact Mere Christianity had me. I'm no super Catholic or anything—I rarely go to mass or remember to pray—but I absolutely LOVE the Jesuit approach to mindfulness through what they call the "Daily Examen", which I want to try for the entire month of February.
I went to a Jesuit university (Boston College) but paid little attention to their approach to life. I'm excited to explore James Martin's take, being that the book's subtitle is "spirituality for real life"!
Will you read along? Pick up The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything if you want to come along for the ride. I'll report back at the end of the month with my thoughts.
(Or has anyone already read it? Let me know what you think?)