Duncan Brown's 'Screwtape letter' draws attention to the way we spend our time and the pressure of feeling busy.
Editor’s note: This article is an original letter written by a Providence College student who was introduced to C.S. Lewis’ ‘Screwtape Letters’ in this college professor’s course.
My dear Snagglewart,
From what I have seen of your first report, you have fallen prey to a very common mistake made by novices in our field. You, dear Snagglewart, have started with your goals far too high! I see here that you aimed to make your patient hateful of his religion, and to drive him straight to debauchery. While these are admirable goals, and what you will ultimately aim for, your methods are, frankly, pathetic — they aim to do too much in too little time.
Remember: Rome didn’t fall in a day. You seem to think that giving him niggling feelings of doubt whenever he attends the Enemy’s home or egging him on to say yes to every dubious act is the best way to do this. How foolish! The proper route is not a direct attack, where he will be wary of affronts, but a more subtle sabotage in a place that he will not suspect. I shall give you two avenues of attack that I have found to be particularly useful against students at these wonderful pits of confusion and depravity: schedules and friends. Those, Snagglewart, can bring down almost any patient to the level we so desire, and are all the more effective at these schools they so “love.”
A schedule may seem like a small thing — and in many ways it is — but the important thing is to make it seem like the largest thing in the world to your patient. It doesn’t matter if your patient does in fact have a physical schedule; what is important is that he have a sense of urgency about him all the time. There is somewhere to be, something to do, and not enough time to do it! While you forge this sense of constant busyness, you must not jump the gun and attempt to remove his churchgoing habits immediately. This could backfire if attempted too early; instead, you must allow your patient to settle into a busy routine, until he feels more or less that this level of activity is normal, and that he has a grasp on it. It is then, when he has found his footing, that you must start the second part of this operation, by keeping constant vigil for a particularly chaotic time.
It is when a chaotic time falls upon him that you must convince him that he can drop something out of his schedule, preferably — but not necessarily — a visit to church. When the patient finally gives himself this time to breathe, after weeks of activity, he will realize just what a relief it is to shirk a duty. Now is a time of utmost importance; you must be there to tell him that this break is deserved, and furthermore that future breaks would be deserved as well.
If all goes well, you can even convince him that giving his word to do something is not as binding as he once believed it to be. “After all,” he’ll think, “why shouldn’t I allow myself time as I see fit?” — ignoring all the while his obligations to others and thinking only of his own tiredness.
In fact, he may come to resent those who rely on him, despite your patient being the one who offered his services in the first place. His time should begin to feel like a jealously-protected resource, so that he will always be on his guard against those whom he suspects of desiring it. If you can move correctly, soon he will go from having been overcommitted, overburdened, and exhausted all the time, to a creature of leisure and sloth, who regards it as a good thing that he spends hours on end twiddling his thumbs and doing little else. I hope you can see now, Snagglewart, that there is much more to this work than frontal assaults; after all, the Enemy has some measure of defense against these methods. It is best to attack from where we are unseen and unsuspected.
Your affectionate mentor,