The Screwtape Letters, by CS Lewis, were a series of letters purportedly written from a senior devil to his nephew, a tempter working on a human “patient”. Here is a contribution of my own.

My dear Wormwood,

From your last letter, I see that you are not quite clear about the proper use of guilt. Yes, yes, of course a steady stream of guilt is helpful insofar as it presses on the patient and drives him away from any real contact with the Enemy; I’ve written to you before about the importance of making the patient so afraid of facing up to his own sins that he will not go to the one Person who could really take them away. However, guilt has one unfortunate side effect. Sometimes it will truly lead to “repentance and amendment of life”—although, fortunately, far less often than the humans suppose. Still, there is the chance that you will push guilt too far. The thing is to get all of the dread, anxiety, and self-loathing, all of the failure to trust in the Enemy—all the delicious emotional effects—without touching the will.

There are two ways to do this. The first is to soak the patient in guilt for a sin for which he has already asked forgiveness. The Enemy is dreadfully sappy towards these humans—they stubbornly ignore him and willfully trample what he says into the mud, but the instant they show the smallest sign of wanting to make things right with him, he turns around and acts like he forgot the whole thing, and expects them to do the same. Any sensible being would crush such miserable, sniveling worms out of hand and be done with all their disobedience, but the Enemy, for some plot of his own, tells them that he is giving them “new life”, and expects them to act like it. If we can encourage the humans to be tormented about sins that they have already asked forgiveness for, they will in effect believe that the Enemy does not have the power to forgive them—that there is something in their lives that He cannot make right. This is what was known as “despair” in the old days, and held as one of the greatest sins. However, there is still danger in this plan. It does keep clear in the patient’s mind what is a sin, and thus can help them avoid future sins of the same kind.

screwtapeAn even more promising tactic is to encourage the patient to be guilty for things that are not sins at all. For a young patient, such as yours, this has endless potential. You will have noticed that guilt goes hand-in-hand with regret. This is natural; “I ought not to have done this” leads naturally to “I wish I had not done this”. However, there is another class of action that also draws regret: social embarrassment. There is hardly any area of life that interests the humans more than what their fellows think of them; and there is hardly any area in which they feel themselves to do more poorly. There is no human who does not put his foot into his mouth—and no human who does not worry that these momentary social lapses will have permanent effect on their public and private relationships. Whether a man is talking to a girl he likes or to someone who will help him get along in his career, his embarrassing words and actions will stand out in his memory, lined with fire.

So, men feel regret when they sin, and they feel regret when they embarrass themselves. The thing to do is to mix up the feelings of guilt and regret so much in their minds that they will come to feel positive guilt when they have broken purely social rules. Looking stupid is of course not a sin; in fact, in many cases, the patient should not be allowed to know that he is making a fool of himself, so as to not deflate a flourishing sense of pride. However, if the patient is especially sensitive, or if the embarrassment is too spectacular to be ignored, feelings of guilt should be introduced as soon as possible. There are two benefits to this. Firstly, social faux-pas cannot be forgiven; to bring them up after the fact only leads to more awkwardness, and more regret, and thus more guilt. I have had patients who cling to embarrassing moments from decades before, beating themselves over the head with incidents that everyone else forgot years earlier. This encourages living in the past, and makes it much easier for you to direct your patient’s attention away from the concrete duties he has in the present. If a man is torn apart by interior guilt for a misstep years before, he is more likely to neglect reaching out to his family or to his friends.

The second great benefit is that the patients feel their social embarrassments so much more vividly than they feel their sins. For all but the humans deepest in the Enemy’s camp, He is very seldom emotionally real. Your patient may say that he is a Christian, and he might have a quite definite grasp of what the Enemy wants him to do, but his sorrow for disobeying the Enemy will still be quite faint compared to the mortification he feels when he makes an awkward comment to a professor. This does not hold for the great, blasting sins, of course, but those are not our goal in any case. Self-centeredness and petty cruelty will bring the humans to us quite as easily as murder and adultery, and without raising specters of guilt. Few humans really feel what it means to repent of pride; they say they do, and the Enemy, ridiculous as He is, gives their feeble attempts far more credit than they are worth, but their ‘repentance’ is mostly watercolor pictures and vague intentions. Faced with a truly searing dose of embarrassment laced with guilt, their mostly-pretended guilt over their daily sins will be forgotten. If a man lays awake at night, agonizing over spilling food all over himself on a date, he will not lay awake agonizing over his harshness to his roommate. It’s all human silliness, of course—the Enemy doesn’t care how awkward they are, as long as they are kind. But awkwardness can feel like a much greater fault than cruelty.

Your affectionate uncle,