On Being an “X”

Those of us who have delved deeply into C. S. Lewis’s writings are still sometimes alerted to one of those writings that we either have forgotten or either have not grasped the significance of it in an earlier reading. That has been the case with me in teaching my course on Lewis’s essays the past couple of months. I naturally included most of the “big” ones that everyone mentions, but as I developed the course, I came across a few that I decided to incorporate into it that I hadn’t intended to add upon my first “culling,” so to speak. One of those that I originally excluded was “The Trouble with X.” I’m assuming, based on my own experience, that this particularly essay normally doesn’t show up in a list of key Lewis writings. I’m now convinced that it deserves a higher status.

Obviously, this mysterious “X” needed definition. Why did Lewis decide to be so vague? One easy answer is that this title might draw curious readers in a way that a more definitive title would not have accomplished. The mystery is partially resolved by the second paragraph as Lewis uses that letter X to stand for anyone in your life who makes things difficult for you. If only “X” would be reasonable. If only “X” would not make life harder for you than it ought to be.

The problem, though, is that “X,” whoever that “X” might be, in your experience, never seems to be reasonable. Lewis sadly comments, “We know how utterly hopeless it is to make ‘X’ see reason. Either we’ve tried it over and over again–tried it till we are sick of trying it–or else we’ve never tried it because we saw from the beginning how useless it would be.”

You know, in fact, that any attempt to talk things over with “X” will shipwreck on the old, fatal flaw in “X’s” character. And you see, looking back, how all the plans you have ever made always have shipwrecked on that fatal flaw—on “X’s” incurable jealousy, or laziness, or touchiness, or muddleheadedness, or bossiness, or ill temper, or changeableness.

We have to fact the fact, Lewis counsels, that we can never change anyone else’s character, no matter how hard we may try. Where he goes next with his thoughts may be a revelation for some because he then notes that God has the same problem we do.

Yet, despite all these advantages, His plans are spoiled, just as ours are, “by the crookedness of the people themselves.” Sinful people take all of God’s gifts and ruin them, turning them into “occasions for quarreling and jealousy, and excess hoarding, and tomfoolery.”

The objection, of course, is that God is God and we are not. He could, conceivably, alter people’s character by force. Lewis, though, points to how God has made us and the limitation He has placed on Himself. The change of character must be something we agree with and choose to submit to His Lordship. “He would rather have a world of free beings, with all its risks,” Lewis says, “than a world of people who did right like machines because they couldn’t do anything else.”

Up to this point, Lewis has been targeting those who cause problems in our lives. I mentioned above that the definition of “X” first offered was only a partial answer. He now focuses in on the rest of the definition—and it is more painful.

If we really want to move into the realm of wisdom, Lewis says we must first realize that we are just like those “other Xs” who cause problems for us. We have our own flaws that, if we are honest, have done damage to the plans of other people. We are “X” also.

“It is important to realize,” Lewis continues, “that there is some really fatal flaw in you: something which gives others just that same feeling of despair which their flaws give you. That is one way in which God’s view must differ from mine. He sees all the characters: I see all except my own.” We all too often have a major blind spot about ourselves. It’s so easy to see the faults in others; it’s not always easy to see ours.

There is another difference in perspective between God and us. Although God sees all those faults, He never stops loving the faulty. If anyone says, well, that’s easy for Him because He’s God, Lewis digs deeper. We only see the external; He sees everything that goes on inside each person. We can be fooled by the external, but He knows what’s really going on in people’s hearts. Lewis argues that such an inward look at the evil within men does not make it easier for God to love them.

The more we can imitate God in both these respects, the more progress we shall make. We must love “X” more; and we must learn to see ourselves as a person of exactly the same kind. … Of all the awkward people in your house or job, there is only one whom you can improve very much. … Be sure there is something inside you which, unless it is altered, will put it out of God’s power to prevent your being eternally miserable.

Lewis always said he was not good trying to do altar calls. That was someone else’s gift. Yet the way he ends this essay might be one of the best and truest altar calls of all.