Surprised By Joy, C.S. Lewis on Desiring Desire
It seems like an odd phrase, to be surprised by joy. Without much reflection, we can reasonably assume we know what it means to have joy.
But do we?
In Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis merges an extraordinary life experience with a growing awareness of God. The pursuit of joy is the canvas for a picture of his early life and his journey from a boy of nominal faith, to atheist adolescent, to homeward-bound prodigal.
From Joy to Christianity
You will quickly glean from his work that to know joy, we must know desire, a feeling with which we are all well acquainted. It drives our behavior and demands our attention. It is unending, for some to the point of madness. Entire religions have been dedicated to seeing its end.
There is no escape from desire; its mechanism remains fixed within the workings of our mind and soul, and for good reason. Desire itself is not as easily dismissed as the wife and child abandoned by the young Buddha in search of the worldview, which, in the end, would call for its rejection outright.
The object of our desire is consequential, and C. S Lewis’s book describes his early life and struggle to understand the source behind his glimpses of joy as he read the great authors and philosophers.
But for Lewis, joy could no sooner be captured than after reaching a proper understanding of the thing itself. The thing, he found was not found in the massiveness of Norse mythology, or the esoteric pleasures promised by the Occult (though he lapsed for periods into both). Of the Occult, he describes his temporary and troublesome passion:
“It is a spiritual lust; and like the lust of the body it has the fatal power of making everything else in the world seem uninteresting while it lasts.” 1
Lewis understood the connection between Joy and desire, rightly explaining the true nature of our pursuit and illustrating a common quality present during his own experiences:
“. . .it is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one charactersitc, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again.”2
Preparing to Fall Away
This pursuit of Joy shaped his early attitudes about spirituality. Lewis describes his feeling toward Christianity as a young boy:
“I naturally accepted what I was told but I cannot remember feeling much interest in it.”3
Lewis’s childhood understanding of God was indistinguishable from that of many believers today:
“I had approached God, or my idea of God, without love, without awe, even without fear. He was, in my mental picture of this miracle, to appear neither as Savior nor as Judge, but merely as a magician; and when He had done what was required of Him I supposed He would simply–well, go away.”4
Over the course of Lewis’s education, God did not so much go away, as allow Lewis to be away, at least, for a time. His mind was a melting pot of philosophies, ideologies, and possibilities. Rationalism, Idealism, Materialism and other -isms of the day competed for his attention and worked on the superficial faith of his youth, until:
“. . .the general impression I got was that religion in general, though utterly false, was a natural growth, a kind of endemic nonsense into which humanity tended to blunder. In the midst of a thousand and first, labeled True. But on what grounds could I believe in this exception?”5
The Wonderfully Depressing Alternative
Content at that point to reject this kind of theistic religiosity, he offers a candid description of the only real alternative, Materialism, and its attractiveness in light of his particular disdain for “interference”:
“. . .the materialist’s universe had the enormous attraction that it offered you limited liabilities. No strictly infinite disaster could overtake you in it. Death ended all. And if ever finite disasters proved greater than one wished to bear suicide would always be possible. The horror of the Christian universe was that it had no door marked Exit. . . .What mattered most of all was my deep-seated hatred of authority, my monstrous individualism, my lawlessness. No word in my vocabulary expressed deeper hatred than the word Interference. But Christianity placed at the center what then seemed to me a transcendental Interferer.”6
Fortunately, Lewis’s search for the source of this Joy did not end there. Many things came together to make “the most reluctant convert in all of England.”
- The early death of his mother
- A privileged upbringing
- Excellent tutors
- Flirtations with apostasy
- An insatiable appetite for dialectics
- A staunch atheists concession to the historicity of the Gospel accounts
- The works of Chesterton
- The friendship of J.R.R Tolkien
- A revelation when injured during WWI
- The distinction between appearances and the Absolute
- A lifetime spent in pursuit of truth
Toward the end, Lewis offers some insight gained from his pursuit of joy:
- Joy can only be experienced when it is not being contemplated.
- Joy is not a state of mind; it is a byproduct
- Its existence presupposes something other and outer.7
From Christianity to Joy
You must read the work in its entirety to fully appreciate how Lewis’s pursuit of Joy brought him to the feet of God. After embracing theism, his investigation of world religions left him with only two contenders :
- Hinduism, which he rejected as an “oil-an-water co-existence of philosophy side-by-side with Paganism unpurged; the Brahmin meditating in the forest, and, in the village a few miles away, temple prostitution, sati, cruelty, monstrosity,”8 and
- Christianity, about which he claimed himself “too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myth.”9
It is no coincidence that in Lewis’s pursuit of joy he encountered the object of ultimate worth, thus defining the character of our ultimate desires. In the end, Lewis’s surprise was not that he found Joy, it was the realization that Joy was not the true object of his pursuit.
Lewis’s search of a familiar state of mind led him back to the Mind with which we are all familiar. How often do we, like Lewis, begin searching in the wrong place (the inner and familiar), when the answer must lie somewhere else (the outer and the other)?
Lewis’s story is a win. He survived his philosophical forays into a world of myth and danger. I should hardly think our outcome will be similar when we are surprised by pleasure.
1C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (New York: First Mariner Books, 2012), Kindle ed., 60.
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About Jason B. Ladd
Jason is an author, speaker, Marine, and father of seven. He has flown the F/A-18 Hornet as a Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron 1 (MAWTS-1) Instructor Pilot and the F-16 as an Instructor Pilot. His award-winning book One of the Few: A Marine Fighter Pilot’s Reconnaissance of the Christian Worldview has been optioned for film adaptation. He is represented by Julie Gwinn of The Seymour Agency.