By Naomi Kim '21
In his 1942 book, The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis presents a set of letters sent from a demon named Screwtape to his less-experienced nephew Wormwood. Wormwood has been assigned a human “patient” to tempt and guide to the devil, known as“Our Father Below.” Screwtape advises his nephew on how best to undermine humans and prevent them from forming relationships with God, whom he calls “the Enemy.”
My dear Wormwood,
Ah! So your patient’s university is closing down? Is that so? Shall we celebrate, then, and gorge ourselves on human anxiety—like you? Shall we go absolutely mad and lose our focus as you seem to have?
You crawling millipede of a demon! Your last letter was practically incoherent! You clearly wrote it while utterly inebriated on all the fears and uncertainties now teeming on your patient’s campus. You are letting your excitement get the better of you. Have you learned nothing at the Tempters’ College? It is exactly at moments like this—moments when you think your patient is surely yours, for the circumstances seem so favorable to us—that the Enemy shows himself. If you don’t keep your wits about you (assuming you even have any), we shall lose any advantage we might have.
This time of disruption can—and has, thanks be to Our Father Below—distracted your patient from her previous devotional practices: you say she has lost, overnight, her habits of prayer and Bible reading. But at the same time this rupture has redirected her, along with many other humans, in ways more favorable to the Enemy than to us. Such is the double-edged sword of disasters when it comes to our efforts: while crises can indeed draw these dust-formed creatures away from the Enemy, they can also shake them from stupors and strip away scales from their eyes. Such is the case with your patient and a good many others in this time of pandemic. They have realized that they are not as invincible as they had previously fancied, that their plans are not as unshakeable and permanent as they would like to believe. This deals a blow to their pride, as you might expect, and makes them more aware of the truth of their own humble positions.
Moreover, so many of these students who have been taking their classes, their professors, their friendships, and their campuses for granted have suddenly been awakened to a newfound appreciation for their time in university. With only days remaining at school and with temporary relief from the demands of coursework, your patient has made a renewed effort to seek out friends. She has been drinking in the world like a bee drunkenly drinking in the first flower’s nectar—everything made more precious by the clock ticking away. Tread carefully, Wormwood, for eyes opened to beauty are eyes that may once again be turned back to the Enemy.
Not all is lost, though. Soon, your patient—and so many other students—will have to enter a period of quarantine back at home. These mud-creatures, though they always complain about not having enough time, never know what to do when they have an abundance of hours on their own. Plagued by boredom, they seek out entertainment and disengagement from reality, frequently on that thing they call “the Internet.” Despite all resolutions to be productive (is this not the favored word of the 21st century? Particularly among students like your patient), they give in to lethargy, aimlessness, and apathy. It is really quite amusing to see how many of them fall also into gluttony from sheer lack of things to do—and how many of them, despite having so much more time, fall away from prayer in favor of mindless amusements. (Bread and circuses, indeed—the Romans had it right all those ages ago!) When your patient enters her quarantine period, you will see why even Slubgob and I have sometimes spoken with grudging respect of the ascetics of old, who in isolation prayed without ceasing and, despite having the animal nature that all humans do, strictly regulated their diets. You are too young to know of St. Antony of the Desert, but a junior tempter certainly would have been no match for him. I gnash my teeth at the memory of him! He slipped through all of our grasps! Because of that man, I spent nearly seven weeks trapped in the form of a cockroach—a transformation wrought upon me when my frustrations and fury at that man—
But enough of that. I feel vestiges of anger welling up in me again, and I have no desire to find myself in such a form again. Besides, my secretary Toadpipe transcribes altogether too slowly for my satisfaction.
Compared to the likes of St. Antony, your patient is all soft flesh and flabby will. Once she is home she will no doubt find herself paralyzed by cabin fever and boredom in quarantine, especially since, as you noted, she will be spending two weeks isolated in her own room due to her parents’ concerns of her travel through airports. Keep her from considering the goings-on of the outside world; let lethargy and pointless entertainment drown any flicker of compassion or concern for the ill, the uninsured, the healthcare professionals. Stuff her full of “the Internet” to drain away the hours—hours she might otherwise have spent praying, writing, reading, or reaching out to friends scattered all throughout this country.
Yet I must warn you of becoming overconfident. Despite the fact that your patient’s devotional practices have swiftly been scattered, your patient has by no means abandoned faith or ceased believing in the Enemy. Moreover, she has already experienced enough highs and lows in spiritual life that we can anticipate an eventual end to this current trough as well. We may expect her to begin tottering prayers once again in her time of quarantine, at some point or another—but do your best to extend the period of spiritual dryness and distraction for as long as you can nonetheless. Who knows? If you play your cards very, very well, she may be kept from picking back up her Scripture reading or her prayer.
But beware: this period of falling away from devotional practice may eventually serve to grow her understanding of her own weakness—and lead her to greater dependency on the Enemy.
Your affectionate uncle,
My dear Wormwood,
I am glad to see that your most recent report was written at a time when you were, at the least, sober. Your penmanship, however, is still atrocious. I must speak to Slubgob about adding an emphasis on penmanship to the composition courses at the Tempters’ College.
But I digress. You report that your patient, like many other students, has begun her online coursework, her quarantined school days. She seems to be just as I predicted—desirous of productivity but struggling to regiment her days well. The minutes melt into hours that melt into days and suddenly she finds herself at the week’s end, unsure of where the time went. But I particularly relished the fact that she can hardly remember the last time she sincerely prayed. This is excellent news! Perhaps your patient is even weaker than I initially thought. It is, of course, quite helpful to the purposes of Our Father Below that your patient has been separated from her Christian fellowship on campus—and, of course, that she cannot physically attend church. Left on their own like this, these bipedal vermin are remarkably weak in will and devotion. This is, of course, why the Enemy has always encouraged them to build Christian communities, to encourage and help one another stay grounded. Somehow he believes that they will look upon one another and learn to see him. What nonsense! Something, I presume, to do with love, again.
Love—it is always love with the Enemy! Here is the good news about human beings, though: they are not very good at love. Mark that down somewhere, Wormwood—although surely Slubgob made this a core course at the Tempters’ College. And surely all it takes is one quick glimpse at all the course of human history to see how poorly these beasts have loved one another. And this weakness, this tendency to veer away from love, is what we can capitalize on during this time of coronavirus. People are in close quarters with one another: inflame tensions and irritations. People are afraid of running out of everything: tell them they must buy up everything they can, leaving nothing behind for anyone else.
There is, of course, another angle to approach this from, one which is less dramatic but might be more particularly suited for your patient. You must distract her—distraction is always useful—from maintaining real connection with her friends. Once you do that, once she begins sliding away from them, her heart will slowly begin to grow a thick skin of apathy. These two-legged animals need one another (how stupidly dependent they are!) to learn those things the Enemy is always waxing poetic about—compassion and mercy and all those disgusting words. We, though, must teach them to simply not care. To not put in an effort to care.
Humans always want what is easy, and it is far easier to let relationships fade away because of busyness or distance or apathy, rather than working on and working through the busyness, the distance, the apathy. And in this time of quarantine, this time of prolonged separation and continuing work, how easy it is to let relationships fall by the wayside! Your patient may have become far more aware of the importance of her friendships right when the university closed—but her memory, like those of so many other humans, is short. It only goes so far. Out of sight, out of mind. That is the principle. Keep your patient distracted. Keep your patient lazy. When the thought of staying in touch pokes up through the sluggishness, smooth it down. It takes action to invest in a friendship. Inaction is easier.
(It is this very principle that makes sin by inaction so effective, even if it is less exciting to watch. Humans are extraordinarily skilled at overlooking their passivity, at overlooking the things they leave undone, and can convince themselves that they are still “good people.”)
I am, however, a little concerned at your note that your patient is frequently reading the news. This can be either quite good for us—or good for the Enemy. To turn this in our favor, you might push her to consume it more and more. And as she reads more and more, you can dial up her level of anxiety and helpless uncertainty until it grows uncontrollable. (Ah! The scrumptious smell of panic and fear!) Or you might drive her in the other direction, by making her utterly apathetic from overexposure. Anything to dry up the wellspring of caring in this time is helpful to us, and both unchecked fear and checked-out apathy are good in that regard. And once she reaches apathy, she is likely to stop looking at the news so frequently, anyway.
But we must keep in mind the fact that your patient’s news-perusing habit can work in the Enemy’s favor, as well. Reading the news makes it impossible for her to ignore the wider reality of the pandemic beyond her own safe home. It makes her more aware of her own privilege. This means there is quite a chance that your patient begins to pray for the doctors and nurses, or the grocery store cashiers, or the sick, or those bearing great financial burdens, etc. She might also begin searching for something that might be done—something she might be able to help with, somehow. All of these are quite dangerous to us, and you must keep her from looking outward, at others—direct her to look more to herself, her concerns, her work.
As a whole, Wormwood, the situation is actually precarious for us. There are, of course, great gains for Our Father Below simply in terms of human misery and strain. (You have heard, I am sure, of how well the tempters assigned throughout the world have done in increasing rates of domestic abuse?) But times of crisis afford opportunities for people to serve and love their neighbor in nasty displays of selflessness that draw the admiration of their fellow creatures. Look now at all those who work at hospitals, for example, or those providing others with financial support. Then there are those who create culture, art forged in the crucible of crisis. For inscrutable reasons, the Enemy has vested the arts with the powers to inspire, to amuse, even to heal—and so we must exercise all our efforts to restrict such activity. Moreover, this crisis has done an unfortunately good job highlighting the inequalities that run like a million cracks through human society. These inequalities are the sorts of conditions we want patients to perpetuate, not examine! When they begin examining things, they may also begin trying to change things.
Though the circumstances may seem in many ways favorable to us, we must not forget that the Enemy has ways of subverting evil into good. Stay alert, Wormwood.
Your affectionate uncle,