Why Your Family Can’t Decide Where to Eat

CS Lewis thought his writing wouldn’t make it 5 years after he died.  The reason so many continue to quote him is that he got to the point, and usually did it with incisiveness but also in a way that is light enough to accept.  Almost every day I read something of his I return home wanting to talk about it – often laughing at how ridiculous I am.  Pointed out to me by strange fictitious allegories of Lewis’.

In the Screwtape Letters, a letter from an older demon to a younger, he writes this about families.  I think this account is still remarkably accurate.  You?

“In discussing any joint action, it becomes obligatory that A should argue in favor of B’s supposed wishes and against his own, while B does the opposite.  It is often impossible to find out either party’s real wishes; with luck, they end by doing something that neither wants, while each feels a glow of self-righteousness and harbors a secret claim to preferential treatment for the unselfishness shown and a secret grudge against the other for the ease which the sacrifice has been accepted.  Later on, you can venture on what may be called the Generous Conflict Illusion.  This game is best played with more than two players, in a family with grown-up children, for example.  Something quite trivial, like having tea in the garden, is proposed.  One member takes care to make it quite clear (though not in so many words) that he would rather not but is, of court, prepared to do so our of “Unselfishness”.  The others instantly withdraw their proposal, ostensibly through their “Unselfishness” but real because they don’t want to be used as a sort of lay figure on where the first speaker practices petty altruisms” (I had to read that one twice…  it is worth catching though!).  “But he is not going to be done out of his debauch of Unselfishness either.  He insists on doing “what the others want”.  They insist on doing what he wants.  Passions are roused.  Soon someone is saying “Very well then, I won’t have tea at all!”  And  a real quarrel ensues with bitter resentment on both sides.  You see how it is done?  If each side had been frankly contending for its own real wish, they would all have kept within the bounds of reason and courtesy; but just because the contention is reversed and each side is fighting the other side’s battle, all the bitterness which really flows from thwarted self-righteousness and obstinacy and from the accumulated grudges of the last 10 years is concealed from them by the nominal or official “Unselfishness” of what they are doing or, at least, held to be excused by it.  Each side is, indeed, quite alive to the cheap quality of the adversary’s Unselfishness and of the false position into which he is trying to force them; but each manages to feel blameless and ill-used itself; with no more dishonesty than comes natural to a human.”




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