In February of 1942, C.S. Lewis published a book called The Screwtape Letters. The book consists of a series of fictional letters between two demons, Screwtape and Wormwood. In the book, Screwtape, the elder demon, gives Wormwood, his young nephew, advice on how to torment and secure the eternal damnation of a man known only as “the patient.”
Lewis’ book is an approachable work of Christian apologetics that attempts to model how to live a virtuous life by letting the reader listen in on what demons might be saying and doing to undermine that effort. While The Screwtape Letters is explicitly religious, I’ve wondered recently what Screwtape might write to Wormwood if his goal was not to damn his patient to hell, but rather to create the worst possible mental health in his patient.
That exchange might look something like this:
Wormwood: Uncle, I’m struggling to make my patient miserable, so I thought that I would write to you for advice. My patient has been experiencing many positive emotional states that are concerning. He just got a promotion at work, and this has caused him to have renewed interest in his job, which he previously thought of as meaningless.
From my studies of anti-mental health, I know that positive feelings about anything can be quite dangerous. He also met a woman that he has grown quite fond of at the animal shelter where he volunteers. He is thinking about asking her out for coffee. His friend Scott has also been encouraging him to start walking each evening with him. Uncle, I feel like I’m on the verge of losing this patient. Please help.
Screwtape: You were never the brightest penny, Wormwood, and the way you are managing this patient has me concerned that you lack the ability to emotionally torment effectively. You are making a number of obvious mistakes with this patient, but you do not seem to understand them. You must exert strong effort quickly, or you will lose this patient to contentment.
First off, you must get ahead of his optimism about work. Whisper in his ear that he was only promoted so that his employer could make him work longer hours. Tell him that he is not getting paid enough. And tell him, most importantly, that his work really is meaningless.
You must not allow him to feel that he is making a significant contribution of any kind in his work. He must feel that it is pointless. As you know, all work has meaning if you look at things deeply enough. This is why it is so vital to discourage your patient from looking at anything beyond the surface level.
A good tactic in situations like these is to get your patient to compare himself to other people. While he may have been promoted, remind him that many other people still have higher and better paid positions than he does. Remind him that they all make more money than he does as well, and that they all have greater status.
Getting a patient to compare himself unfavorably to others is powerful for making a person miserable. This is because no matter how successful a person is, there will always be someone better off. If your patient achieves more than 99% of his peers, you can still make him miserable by reminding him that 1% of people are still better off. Social media is your best friend here, Wormwood. Make sure he has all the apps.
Also, focus his attention on the negative at all times. If you can, get him to ruminate on the bad things happening in his life. At the same time, make sure to help him forget as soon as possible anything positive that happens to him. Whisper in his ear that his successes are due to luck and that they will never happen again.
Surprisingly, you seem aware that this woman that your patient has grown fond of is a danger. While she is a danger, this can be easily addressed. The key is to remind him constantly of the faults that he sees in her. Is she highly opinionated? Does she get angry at times? Does your patient not like her hairstyle? These are the things that you must get your patient to focus on! Help him to see what a mess she is and how he would be a fool to pursue a relationship with her. At the same time, try to convince him that he himself has not a single fault.
You must also work tirelessly to negate this woman’s positive character traits. If she exhibits kindness, tell him that she is only doing so to look good in front of other people. If she has beauty, tell him that she is probably vain and full of herself. If she is friendly towards him, tell him that she is probably trying to manipulate him.
You get the idea, right?
Finally, you need to address how your patient is at risk to start exercising. You must not allow this to happen. Misery is much easier to develop in those who are living sedentary lifestyles. Walking is very dangerous, nephew. It is often a gateway drug to terrible, terrible things like running or cycling or, Satan forbid, a frisbee golf league. Exercise and friendship together? That’s the kind of thing that will cause you to lose this patient forever!
It should be easy to get your patient to stay at home though. Just tell him that it’s too cold or too warm to be outside walking. Tell him that he’ll injure himself if he walks or that people will see him exercising and make fun of him behind his back.
And why in the name of eternal sadness are you letting your patient volunteer at an animal shelter? You must put a stop to this at once! Volunteerism is very bad for your patient. If you aren’t careful, he’ll start to care about something other than himself. Compassion for people is bad enough, but for animals too?
Wormwood: Thank you for the advice uncle. I’ll try to do better. With your help, I know that my patient will soon be sad, hopeless, and despondent, just like we want him to be.
Charles D. Thomas is a writer, psychotherapist, and Main Street Media Group board member who made Three Rivers his home for over a decade. Feedback is welcome at [email protected].
Any views or opinions expressed in “Big World, Small Town” are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Watershed Voice staff or its board of directors.