The Inner Ring

In Dialogue with C. S. Lewis

I’m stinging with a thousand paper cuts today- a thousand tiny slights, some real, some perhaps imagined. I’m on the street outside a house where the party’s happening; I’m overhearing plans of secret gatherings; I’m catching laughter and I don’t understand the joke.

You have met the phenomenon of an Inner Ring…I believe that in all men’s lives at certain points, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.

I know that desire and I know that terror. I suppose I hoped I would leave both impulses behind at the school gates, in a heap with my hockey stick, all clothing with any hint of maroon, my scientific calculator and everything else I had no further use for. I’m dismayed- sickened- to find myself at 36 covered in cuts, desperate for the balm of inclusion to soothe my discomfort.

In the whole of your life as you now remember it, has the desire to be on the right side of that invisible line ever prompted you to any act or word on which, in the cold small hours of a wakeful night, you can look back with satisfaction?

No. But to my shame I can think of a great many foolish and hurtful words and acts that came from sad attempts to get inside. How can I find freedom?

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 if in your spare time you consort simply with the people you like, you will again find you have come unawares to a real inside: that you are indeed snug and safe at the centre of something…this is friendship.

So it’s about deliberately choosing not to strive to belong within the all the many rings spinning dizzyingly around my days- the rings of school mums, vicar’s wives, writers and speakers, friendship groups and neighbourhood committees. It’s about focussing on my truest desires, those that come from the person God created me to be. It’s about relinquishing the desire to be inside, and having the courage to live in wide open spaces where no one is excluded and all are embraced.

…the world seems full of “Insides,” full of delightful intimacies and confidentialities and [we] desire to enter them. But If [we] follow that desire [we] will reach no “inside” that is worth reaching. The true road likes in quite another direction.

Thank you Mr Lewis. This has been a very helpful conversation.

“The Inner Ring” was the Memorial Lecture at Kings College, University of London in 1944. You can read the full texthere.