Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life

Our June book club selection was Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life by C. S. Lewis.  (If you missed last month, check it out here!)  The jacket described this as Lewis’ story of conversion to Christianity and though I see that now, it didn’t feel that way in the midst of it.  You don’t actually hear of his conversion until the last 5 pages.  So as I was reading it, I felt like it was more of a story of his childhood and the hurdles he had to overcome to find the Joy he spoke of from the beginning.

Summary: C. S. Lewis is probably best known for his children’s fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia.  In this nonfiction book, he writes about his young life.  How the loss of his mother at a very young age had such an impact on him.  His strained relationship with his father and unique bond with his brother deeply shaped who he became.  He also explored how reading and his education led him to some of the greatest realizations of his life.

This book was quite a departure for our group.  Though a shorter book than we usually pick up, the dialogue felt headier than others.  Surprised by Joy starts with Lewis explaining a couple of instances where he experienced a moment of capital-J Joy.  He said it came quickly, left very shortly after, always leaving him wanting more.   Describing it as something completely different from Pleasure or Happiness he said, “I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world.  But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.”

Lewis was an intellectual and struggled to fit in.  He didn’t have his mother and a self-described “awkward” relationship with his father.  However, he adored his brother and cultivated his vivid and wild imagination by dreaming up imaginary lands with him.  He was not athletic at all, though he pretended just to participate in social activities with classmates.  Struggling to find friends, the ones he did find seemed to be teachers or superiors.  His greatest solace was found among books.

Some of his greatest hangups seemed to be the “intrusion” of religion on his life.  “I was also, as you may remember, one whose negative demands were more violent than his positive, far more eager to escape pain than to achieve happiness, and feeling it something of an outrage that I had been created without my own permission…It was also perhaps not unimportant that the externals of Christianity made no appeal to my sense of beauty.  Christianity was mainly associated for me with ugly architecture, ugly music, and bad poetry.  But, of course, 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.”

The most fascinating part of the whole book for me was the last two chapters.   The focus on how his life was being interrupted by the great Interferer, was truly beautiful.  His studies in philosophy made it hard for Lewis to let go of previously held beliefs.  “Even if my own philosophy were true, how could the initiative lie on my side?  My own analogy, as I now first perceived, suggested the opposite: if Shakespeare and Hamlet could ever meet, it must be Shakespeare’s doing.  Hamlet could initiate nothing.”

For those who struggle with God or Christianity, I loved what Lewis said at the very end: “The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.”  The best part of all of his story was that it was HIS story.  He didn’t say how it should be for other people or what the conversion experience should look like.  He simply shared his experience.  I believe he wanted to share the many hindrances that he had to overcome to find his true Joy.  I also believe he would be thrilled to hear if it helped others to find theirs.

What is your favorite CS Lewis work?  What hindrances have you had to overcome in your faith journey?  What books, music, art has changed how you look at your faith?  Please leave your comments below!