Discovering the Inner Ring

“The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it,” C.S. Lewis wrote in his not-as-well known but nonetheless brilliant speech, “The Inner Ring.”

This Ring is something we all discovered around middle school, if not earlier, when we first observed peers pairing off and desperately wanted to be a part. But this Inner Ring defines adult politics and business, social gathering and even church, more than we care to admit. I’ll let Lewis define it:

“You are never formally and explicitly admitted by anyone. You discover gradually, in almost indefinable ways, that it exists and that you are outside it, and then later, perhaps, that you are inside it … It is not easy, even at a given moment, to say who is inside and who is outside. Some people are obviously in and some are obviously out, but there are always several on the border line … People think they are in it after they have in fact been pushed out of it, or before they have been allowed in; this provides great amusement for those who are really inside.”[1]

Ironically, much of what goes in the name of friendship is in fact, a ply to be admitted in whatever Inner Ring we feel left out of. In college, I felt like an outsider because I did not live on campus like everyone else. I thought I’d solved that when I joined the prayer team. Finally I had my own group of friends, somewhere where I really belonged! Of course, hanging out with people who loved to pray was wonderful, but I soon discovered there was an inner ring of friends even inside there, a group that was elusive to me and no matter how much I tried, I could not become an insider.

Here’s Lewis again: “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 dominate elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.”[2]

That these Rings exist is no question, and I’m sure all of us immediately identify with Lewis’ observations. The problem becomes when we forget the power of their lure— and as a result, destroy truly beautiful friendships on the altar of our ambition to get in an Inner Ring. Or worse, compromise on key personal principles to be accepted.

Let me give another example. I spent probably the whole of six months trying to become friends with a certain young lady. She really had many admirable qualities, but it seemed no matter how hard I tried to reach out, we just couldn’t connect. I began to wonder what was wrong with me that she didn’t like me. It wasn’t that she was particularly unfriendly, but she never drew me into her circle and always ended conversations to move on to someone else.

I began to wonder why this was bothering me so much. I mean, I can’t be best friends with everyone, and I’m okay with that. It dawned on me that the reason I wanted her friendship so badly wasn’t because I loved her company but that she represented a door into an inner circle I had created in my mind — one that, if I was admitted, would increase my perceived status and make me more important. I wanted to be in that group of “important people.”

Of course, the whole thing seems silly looking back. But I felt left out, and that hurt. However, in my endeavor to win over this young lady, I had totally neglected the fact that friendship should be based on pleasure in each other’s company — and of course, Christ-like love. If we genuinely didn’t have enough in common, why should I feel guilty if she wasn’t a close friend?

Here’s how Lewis suggests we avoid this trap:

“The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it. But if you break it, a surprising result with follow. … If in your spare time you consort simply with people you like, you will again find that you have come unawares to a real inside, that you indeed snug and safe at the centre of something, which, seen from the 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 esoteric, for it is only four or five people who like one another meeting to do things they like. This is friendship.”

It’s that common-sense idea that if we enjoy someone’s company, (and of course, if they genuinely encourage us toward the Lord), we should be friends, regardless whether or not they are popular, or leaders, or members of the “Inner Rings” everyone else spends their lives futilely seeking.

This simple observation can be life changing. It frees me to invest in those I really enjoy as friends. It frees me to reach out to the unnoticed, the less social, the visitors without worrying about missing out on “important conversations” with the “important people.” And it frees me to go about life without feeling guilty that I can’t be best friends with everyone, or that I should walk away more encouraged by being with some people than I actually am, even if they are perceived as “godly.”

In other words, recognizing the Inner Ring is the first step to breaking its power in our hearts. And that is a mark of maturity few people live to enjoy.

[1] From “The Inner Ring,” published in The Weight of Glory (Harper One), 144 – 145.

[2] Ibid., 146.

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