Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Trouble with "The Trouble with 'X'"

One day, in heaven, I plan to have C.S. Lewis sign my copy of the Chronicles of Narnia. Or, since I suppose that it's probably true that "you can't take it with you," I'll probably have to borrow a copy from heaven's library to have him sign.

But, one day, in my heavenly book club (which I will invite him to join), I'm afraid I'm going to have to take him to task for a few things. One of those things is his short essay "The Trouble with 'X'." (You can read it online at

This essay, in short, argues that all of those people that we have trouble getting along with-- collectively named 'X'-- are really just like us, and it would really be more worth our while to think about our own faults than about theirs.

I more or less agree with him, but there are a few places where we disagree, and I think those disagreements are significant.

My first disagreement is his statement that, even if all of the other circumstances of our lives were all in line, "real happiness would still depend on the character of the people you have to live with - and ... you can't alter their characters." I agree with the second part-- that we can't alter other people's characters-- and I can certainly testify that those around us affect our mood. But I don't agree that other people can destroy 'real happiness.' I believe that real happiness is not based on anything as fickle as other human beings. If our happiness is based on people whose characters are anything like ours, then I don't know that we'll ever be really happy. I don't believe that we were designed for that.

But enough disagreement for now. This next bit I agree with:

He [God] sees (like you) how all the people in your home or your job are in various degrees awkward or difficult; but when He looks into that home or factory or office He sees one more person of the same kind - the one you never do see. I mean, of course, yourself. That is the next great step in wisdom - to realize that you also are just that sort of person. You also have a fatal flaw in your character. All the hopes and plans of others have again and again shipwrecked on your character just as your hopes and plans have shipwrecked on theirs.

Further, Lewis says, "We must love 'X' more; and we must learn to see ourselves as a person of exactly the same kind." Both true. We like to pretend that we're innocent victims, and we use this to justify our anger and self-righteousness. Instead we need to realize that we're often as much in the wrong as everyone else (if not more so), and we need to love them as they are, not as they might be if they stopped annoying us.

This next bit I agree with for the most part, but here, I think, Lewis has the main idea right and some of the details wrong:
Abstain from all thinking about other people's faults, unless your duties as a teacher or parent make it necessary to think about them. Whenever the thoughts come unnecessarily into one's mind, why not simply shove them away? And think of one's own faults instead? For there, with God's help, one can do something. Of all the awkward people in your house or job there is only one whom you can improve very much.

First, I don't think that ignoring people's faults-- or "abstaining from thinking about them"-- is always right. In most cases, this is the best option, but there are exceptions. In some cases, it is our unpleasant duty to confront people about their faults. (If we don't think it's unpleasant, we probably had better keep our mouths shut.) In other cases, when other people's faults involve abuse-- emotional or physical-- we must respond to their faults by distancing ourselves, either emotionally or physically. It is not loving to allow people to continue self-destructive behavior or to allow them to abuse and manipulate us.

The second part of this paragraph that I have qualms about is Lewis' suggestion that we should replace ruminating on other people's faults with mulling over our own. To a certain extent, Lewis is right. For the most part, it would be beneficial if we thought less about what other people do wrong and more about what we do wrong. But this can be gone about in the wrong way, and it can be taken too far. If we simply replace our angry thoughts about our brothers with angry thoughts about ourselves, we haven't made much progress. And if we spend too much time thinking about our own faults, we may, in fact, be going backward, not progressing.

I believe that instead of replacing our anger toward our brothers with anger toward ourselves, we must replace both with grace.

Lewis is right that we are the only people that we can change. Unfortunately, however, I have found that the amount I can change even myself is pretty limited. God is the only one who can change me or anyone else, and, fortunately, his grace is much more abundant than mine.

I suppose that my heavenly book club will probably have better things to discuss than how much to think about our own and other people's faults, since it'll be a moot point by then anyway. But I'm pretty sure we'll never get tired of talking about the grace that covered our faults-- that took away all of "The Trouble with 'X'."


  1. so glad to know you have a blog!

  2. this post was great. I've learned to not listen to Lewis on all points, but he was very wise in many other points. I agree with what you said and it only makes sense, since your thoughts line up with the Bible. Sorry I don't have the scriptures at the moment...