Addiction and Salvation in ‘The Great Divorce’: The Grey Town

This is the first in, hopefully, a series of essays on the topic of addiction and salvation found in C.S. Lewis’ book ‘The Great Divorce’. In setting out I feel a couple of caveats need to be made. First, I am not a scholar on Lewis. I took a class on the theology of his writings in seminary, but that was hardly enough to call myself an expert. I say this to convey the fact that this is all conjecture on my part and could very well be significantly off the mark of what Lewis was going for originally. Second, I seriously doubt that Lewis even conceived of the problem of addiction when he wrote this book. The parallels with addiction and the movement out of it is something I’ve noticed over time in reading the book, so please leave the arguments about this not being in line with the original intent of the book on the sideline – I’m aware of that fact. Thirdly, by addiction I don’t mean only the standard substance abuse issues of drugs and alcohol, nor the other common addictions like work or sex. I’m also discussing the less expressed, but still present addictions like control, anxiousness or anything else that causes our life to be less free. With all that said, lets begin.

It’s interesting that Lewis decides to start the book with the narrator already in the grey town. We’re not given any background as to how he got there, why he’s there or even if he’s a he. It’s not until one of the characters on the bus mentions that he killed himself that we’re even privy to the idea of this being some sort of afterlife.

Nonetheless the town itself is an interesting parallel to the life of an addict. It’s just bright enough to feel day, but just dark enough to make you sad the day has finished. The constant rain is bothersome enough that you know you don’t like it but not so bothersome as to make you discontent – it’s a lot like winter in the Pacific Northwest in that way. The external characteristics of the town make it so that you’re never satisfied with anything, but never so dissatisfied as to take any action to make things better.

Aside from the weather and constant twilight the problem is that nothing in the town is actually real. It’s close enough to real as to make you feel better, but it doesn’t have the substance of anything real. We’re told that “You get anything you want…just by imagining it”. And just later we’re told that this ability means that no-one needs to rely on someone else for anything. If there is a problem, which there always is, then you move, imagine a new house and voila you’ve got a new place further away from anyone else.

In addiction there is a constant grayness to life, always feeling just good enough to move, but always looking for a way to make things a little better. This grayness is exactly the thing that causes addiction to continue. It’s the constant desire to make the grayness seem less gray – at least for a moment. The problem is that with every hit of the particular addiction it causes you to need to move further from the community that could actually help you to feel really better. Addiction is the antithesis of community in that it is about me not needing anybody else to help me take care of my problems. It fills a secret part of us and when someone confronts us on it we move a little further out and away from that community. Like the man on the bus says quarrels always happen and when they do people move further and further out. This pattern continues until people are so far out as to be barely visible even by telescope.

There’s a lack of reality to our addictions as well. Drugs make you feel like things are better, but they’re not. Eat something great and you feel like you’re loved more, but things really haven’t changed. Watch some porn, get mad at someone, manipulate a situation; all of these are ways of feeling a level of control that isn’t real, but is real enough to make you feel better, the same way that houses in the grey town give the feeling of security, but don’t keep the rain out.

The problem with addiction is that if you stick around in it long enough, you start to think that life is supposed to be this way. Much like the character on the bus that has decided that the constant twilight of the grey town is not a sign of oncoming evening, but rather the sign of oncoming morning. Clearly, things are getting better, so there is no need to change anything at all – despite the fact that things have been this way for thousands and thousands of years. It is a sad day when grey becomes accepted as white, but it’s inevitable if you don’t constantly acknowledge the grayness of it.

I’ve read several books that argue that every person is addicted to something and it’s part of the human experience to move out of that addiction. In that way I think that the idea that we arrive in our own grey town and need to find the bus queue is rather telling. In the book we’re told that it takes several hundred years to get from the civic center – where people arrive in the grey town – to the bus queue. It’s a process and part of the process is coming to grips with the fact that the grey town – our addiction – is kind of dismal and that there is a better way to live. Lots of people will find the queue, but many will leave the queue before getting on the bus and many will be on the bus on its return journey to the grey town. But for a few the journey to the queue and onto the bus will be the beginning of a life of reality that far surpasses anything the grey town has to offer.

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