Archive for February, 2010
In the Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis there is an unforgettable scene where a ghostly man with an annoying lizard on his shoulder is confronted by a flaming angel. The angel wants to help transform this man into an authentic, freed, redeemed person but the lizard stands in the way. Every attempt by the angel is thwarted by the reptile pest, who keeps whispering lies of happiness into the man’s ear. For a while the man is stuck, wanting to be authentic, alive and free but trapped by his attachment to the enslaving lizard.
This is a picture of many of us who have given our lives over to some addiction or attachment. Some addictions are obvious: alcohol, drugs (legal and illegal), and sex. These are the “big ones” that many pride themselves on being free from. But there are others more socially acceptable. Ambition, positions and accomplishments, fame or popularity, possessions and wealth can equally become addictions. Each of these can damage and control our lives as we pursue them in an inordinate way.
We call them attachments because like the lizard they somehow attach themselves to us and become a part of us. We often are blind to how these attachments control our lives but those around us can see it clearly. Our lust for these things ends up controlling our lives because we see them as defining our happiness.
The term lust in our culture is usually reserved for intense sexual desires but it hasn’t always been the case. In ancient Greece the word was reserved for any intense, inappropriate longing. Drink, medication, sex, achievement, friends and possessions all have their proper and healthy place in society but when we obsess on one as the solution for my happiness it becomes a lust—a lizard on our shoulder whispering “more.” In our freedom to pursue happiness we have become enslaved to something that makes us less human. It has become a lust.
Often our lusts mask and short-circuit our deepest, purest longings. Our deepest desires are for true love, meaning, and happiness. We long for love and truth found in the face of God. We long for the exchange of this love with other people. This is where our true humanity is discovered.
It the Great Divorce the ghostly subhuman offers a barrage of lame denials and excuses as to why he can’t change. The whole time the lizard is furiously whispering in the man’s ear to protect this life of lust. Then finally the man relents. He allows the angel to reach out his flaming hand to grasp the biting and writhing lizard, breaking its back as it is hurled to the ground.
Instantly the man begins to change. The vaporous, addicted, subhuman begins to become solid and golden. He shines like a small angel full of dignity and life.
But to the surprise of the reader the lizard also is transformed. The ugly, reptilian pest struggles and ultimately emerges into a beautiful, silvery white stallion with a golden mane and tail. The “new-made man” grabs the neck of the new horse and they breathe nose to nose into each other’s nostrils. Then with tears of “liquid love” he embraces the angel’s golden feet.
Finally, like a scene out of the knight from Camelot, he leaps on the horse’s back. Then, nudging the stallion with his heels, he waves goodbye and rides off into the “everlasting morning” toward the distant mountains.
Lewis interprets this scene through the voice of his literary mentor, George MacDonald. He says that addictions and attachments can’t fulfill us not simply because they are too rank, but because they are “too weak.” He continues:
What is a lizard compared with a stallion? Lust is a poor, weak, whimpering whispering thing compared with that richness and energy of desire which will arise when lust has been killed.