“As the uneasiness and reluctance to face it cut him off more and more from all real happiness, and as habit renders the pleasures of vanity and excitement and flippancy at once less pleasant and harder to forgo…you will find that anything or nothing is sufficient to attract his wandering attention. You no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep him from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday’s paper will do. You can make him waste his time not only in conversation he enjoys with people whom he likes, but also in conversations with those he cares nothing about, on subjects that bore him. You can make him do nothing at all for long periods. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room. All the healthy and outgoing activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at last he may say…’I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
For those unfamiliar, The Screwtape Letters are C.S. Lewis’s personal treatise on How To Get Into Heaven, told in the form of letters from a senior devil (the titular Screwtape) giving advice to a rookie demon assigned to tempt a nameless Englishman into Hell. A lesser writer might have botched this, inadvertently making the devils look exciting and sexy, but Lewis recognizes the reality expressed so well by Simone Weil:
“Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.”
The paragraph above? Screwtape is boasting.
Now, I suspect that C.S. Lewis and I would disagree on how to get to Heaven, or even what Heaven entails. But I still take this passage for valuable advice on how to live my life.
You see, that last line hit hard: “I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.” That terrified me.
Death comes to us all, sooner or later. So the only real tragedy is a life that’s been wasted. And what life could possibly be more wasted than that?
So now I have a new way of evaluating the things I do: is this something I ought to do? If not – and this isn’t the same as saying something is bad; in a world full of work, any pleasure or diversion falls short of ought – is it something I like to do? And if it is neither, why the heck am I wasting precious time out of a finite life doing it?
“Ought” is usually pretty obvious. People know when something is work that needs to be done. The trick is recognizing “like”. Am I really enjoying reading this webpage, or am I just surfing? Do I really like this show I’m watching in a marathon on Netflix, or am I just vegging out? To paraphrase a philosopher of somewhat less respected stature than Lewis, if you’re only killing time, it’ll kill you right back.
Asking those questions has allowed me to clear some things out of my life that I just didn’t need. The biggest one is that I’m trying to kick the habit – and those are the right words, self-righteousness and anger and adrenaline are an addiction – of wasting my time arguing with people who are wrong on the internet. It’s important to be informed and to stand up for what you think is right – but spending hours at a time on political sites running up my already-too-high blood pressure arguing with the trolls? Not so much. It’s not something I ought to do, and I realized, after asking the questions, that it wasn’t even something I liked to do. I need that time out of my finite life for something else.
Is this something I ought to do? Is this something I like to do?
Ask the questions.