The Paradox of Belonging

“Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain.” -C.S. Lewis

Remember ripped jeans?

When I was in school, all the “cool” kids wore them.

At first, I thought they were stupid. Why would anyone gouge holes in a pair of pants? For ventilation? But then I saw how much respect these kids got.

I wanted to join them.

One Saturday, I convinced my mother to drive me to the local shopping mall. We spent $40 on a pair of designer jeans, “professionally” ripped at both knees.

I did not do this because I thought the jeans were better (they looked ridiculous on me) or because they were comfortable (my pair was three sizes too large and forced me to waddle and trip over myself as a walked).

So why did I do it?

The Inner Ring

Most of us know C.S. Lewis for The Chronicles of Narnia.

But Lewis was not just a fantasy novelist. He was also an essayist, academic and one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century.

In a lecture titled The Inner Ring, Lewis speaks of a desire that he saw at the base of much of our action — the desire to belong.

We spend our lives trying to get into and stay inside social groups that Lewis calls “Rings.”

“I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, 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.”

School has all sorts of rings.

There are the preppy kids with well-to-do parents that get their first sports car at age 16. There are the emo kids that have bad hair and think black shirts only match with black pants. There are also the gamers, the nerds, and so on into infinity.

Nobody tells these kids to organize themselves the way they do. Rings form naturally from human relationships.

When we try to get into these rings, something strange happens.

Another Kind of Treadmill

In another essay, I wrote about the Tantalus problem. We spend so much time and energy to get things like teak wooden flooring, flashy designer handbags or large computer screens, but the satisfaction that comes from these purchases never lasts.

Our new toys bring a short burst of pleasure, but we soon adapt, lose interest and continue on a never-ending pursuit of more. The pursuit of happiness through possessions is like a treadmill that never ends.

Lewis says something similar happens with our pursuit of beloning.

In Greek mythology, the Danaids are women who, as punishment for killing their husbands, are forced to pour water into a bathtub in order to wash away their sins. However, a leak in the bottom of the tub means that the work will never end.

Just as the Danaids cannot fill their tub, Lewis suggests we cannot find happiness by trying to get into a Ring:

“The circle cannot have from within the charm it had from outside. By the very act of admitting you it has lost its magic. Once the first novelty is worn off the members of this circle will be no more interesting than your old friends. Why should they be? You were not looking for virtue or kindness or loyalty or humor or learning or wit or any of the things that can be really enjoyed. You merely wanted to be ‘in.’ And that is a pleasure that cannot last. As soon as your new associates have been staled to you by custom, you will be looking for another Ring. The rainbow’s end will still be ahead of you.”

This creates a paradox of sorts, where the desire to belong is the very thing that keeps us out:

“As long as you are governed by that desire you will never get what you want. You are trying to peel an onion: if you succeed there will be nothing left. Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain.

I know what this is like.

I spent the first half of my twenties hopping from country to country and community to community trying to find the place where I belonged.

I tried to join all sorts of groups — martial arts dojos, cooking classes, language clubs — but, no matter where I went, I did not feel at home for long.

The whole while, I convinced myself that I simply hadn’t looked hard enough. I needed to find the “correct” group, the “correct” people, and the “correct” location for me.

I did not stop to think that the problem might not be with the communities but with myself.

The Slippery Slope to Scoundrel

To waste $40 on a pair of ripped jeans is no terrible crime.

But Lewis suggests that, sooner or later, the time will come when we are tempted to sacrifice something far more important than $40 in order to get into a Ring.

If we make that sacrifice, we may become scoundrels.

“To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colors. Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear. Over a drink or a cup of coffee, disguised as a triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still — just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naif, or a prig — the hint will come.”

The hint that we are being tempted will be near-invisible and also near-impossible to refuse.

And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man’s face — that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face — turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected.

Just as the first cheeseburger or the first cheat meal makes the next one easier, the easiest way to make a wrong decision is to have made one yesterday.

And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude: it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel.

In 1946, a group of 500 ordinary men — middle-aged, middle class and married—were asked to systematically slaughter over 1000 Jewish men, women and children.

What terrifies me is not what they did but how ordinary the men were.

There was no brainwashing, blackmail or compulsion. The men were free to refuse. Yet, out of 500 men, only 13 said no.

If these very, very ordinary people with children waiting for them at home can do something like this, then so can I. And that’s what makes human nature so terrifying.

An Alternative?

Lewis paints a grim picture. Is our only alternative to retreat into the woods and live alone in a log cabin?

A friend of mine tells me the first time he was truly happy was in university, where a series of unanticipated, unplanned and unlikely events brought together four other pale, mathematically-inclined, and socially-impaired boys.

Together, they spent the best four years of their lives.

Perhaps that is what Lewis means when he tells us to “consort simply with the people you like”:

“…if in your spare time you consort simply with the people you like, you will again find that you have come unawares to a real inside: that you are indeed snug and safe at the center of something which, seen from without, would look exactly like an Inner Ring. But the difference is that its secrecy is accidental, and its exclusiveness a by-product, and no one was led thither by the lure of the esoteric: for it is only four or five people who like one another meeting to do things that they like. This is friendship. Aristotle placed it among the virtues. It causes perhaps half of all the happiness in the world, and no Inner Ring can ever have it.”

Some say that, in order to shoot an arrow well, one must not try to shoot the arrow at all. Others say something similar about happiness — that the best way to be happy is forget about finding it.

Perhaps it is also so with belonging. Maybe the only real way to get into an Inner Ring is not to not want to get in at all.

Again, I quote Lewis:

“Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain.”

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