I admit that I have found pleasure and even enrichment by reading works of many of the early to middle 20th Century writers. This is especially true of GK Chesterton and Msgr. Ronald Knox. Both of whom wrote apologetics and detective stories. The attraction is twofold. First, there is what they say (enrichment), and then there is their art of expression (pleasure). Their works led me to explore the writings of others of the same period, one of whom is CS Lewis.
I began reading CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity some time ago because I was interested in finding out what the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, and numerous other works had to say. Lewis, as had GK Chesterton, had been an atheist before becoming a devout Christian – Chesterton as a Catholic and Lewis as an Anglican.
So, what does all this have to do with ‘expectations’? It is this from Lewis’ discussion of Christian Chastity:
… many people are deterred … because they think it is impossible. But when a thing is attempted, one must never think about the possibility or impossibility. Faced with an optional question in an examination paper, one considers whether one can do it or not: faced with a compulsory question, one must do the best one can. You may get some marks for a very imperfect answer: you will certainly get none for leaving the question alone.[i]
The carryover message here is that attempting a thing, even if one fails, is always better than not attempting it at all. Isn’t that what the old saying, ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gain’, also tells us? The unspoken expectation is that some value will come from an attempt even if it ends in failure. Lewis goes on to tell us, ‘Never mind … pick yourself up, and try again.’
While Lewis is writing about achieving Christian virtues of chastity and charity, what he has to say also speaks to the everyday challenges of our lives, be they religious or secular – and our expectations of ourselves. Do we expect perfection from ourselves, or do we accept that no matter how hard we try or want to achieve, that we might fail and need to start again? Perfection is a virtually unachievable goal, and to expect perfection of ourselves – and others – usually proves unrealistic.
Then, the accepted expectation becomes imperfection. Yet as Lewis hastens to tell us, ‘The only fatal thing is to sit down content with anything less than perfection’.
We are being told that while we are imperfect or ultimate goal – our purpose if you will – is to constantly strive for perfection with the expectation of failing, dusting ourselves off, getting up, and trying again, and again, and again.
[i] Mere Christianity, CS Lewis, 1952, Harper One, New York; page 101.