Before I begin, I’d like to preface this post with the warning that some, if not much, of it will sound like I’m tooting my horn. And if I’m being perfectly honest there probably is a dimly-lit, cob-webbed corner of my heart that houses this desire. Or perhaps it lives lavishly in a bright, spacious room with all its demands readily tended to, who knows. Either way, I will try to express what momentarily occupies much of my, well, heart – to continue the metaphor – without rousing the encroaching attention of its more sordid tenants. This long-term resident I’m about to introduce is called the “Inner Ringer” (a term I’ve borrowed from good ol’ sage, C.S. Lewis) and she is nicknamed as such because she incarnates the abnormally unyielding desire to be part of the prevailing in-crowd, the fashionably esoteric Inner Ring.
Now this Inner Ring could be a cohort founded on just about anything – on sports, philosophy, art, literature, Christianity, gaming, etc. – so long as it has as its salient substance members who are mainly drawn in by the empty desire to be, well, “in.” Such coteries do not originate from a genuinely shared interest independent of this longing but are principally, if not absolutely, governed by the terrible fear of marginalisation (which is just an affectively different manifestation of the “inner-ringing” impulse). In other words, its insiders don’t want to play basketball as much as they want to appear agreeably popular and athletic. They don’t want to edifyingly discuss Roger Scruton’s philosophy of beauty as much as they want to appear acceptably sophisticated, incisive and muscular a thinker. Everything that is secondary to an interest or leisure they make primary. It is like – and again, I’m appropriating a snippet of Jack’s wisdom here – the writer who reads in order that he may write better instead of reading for recreation; such an approach is the inferior approach to art. Likewise, “inner-ringing” is the inferior approach to social transactions.
In my case, the Inner Ring I most wanted to join or, in the event I inadvertently found myself a member, most feared losing my membership to was The Attractive. I’m not just referring to the regally modelesque, the impossibly elegant or the universally well-structured (google Jessica Alba for an idea of what such a creature might look like, you enviously oblivious simpleton); they, I’d wager, would constitute a deeper inner ring within the one I allude to. The collective I’m referencing are those who, broadly defined, can simply be credited with, depending on culture and subjective taste (or how much sleep they got the night before), varying degrees of prettiness. They may not necessarily be perpetually head-turning but they rarely, if ever, are snubbed.
Now initiation into such a society is, as Lewis pointed out somewhere in The Weight of Glory (a book I highly recommend, by the by), implicit. You first hear word of your perceived membership in it through licentious comments from the construction workers salvaging the derelict house near yours. Your membership card is placed in your eager palms in the form of a gentleman chivalrously and intentionally holding the door open for you despite your considerable distance from it. Your prestige is recurrently echoed in the shy half-glances, if not unflinchingly approving smiles, of strangers and the unwarrantedly glowing attention from professors. Traces of it bleed into your mounting Facebook likes and again it crops up within your own private circle of friends – which one would hope constitutes true friendship forged by a mutual enthusiasm for a hobby or passion – where you can be sure you are, if not at the pivot, at least never along the periphery.
Clearly there are benefits, as with any club. There’s power and freedom in the form of social liberty and immunity from punishment for forgoing unspoken behavioural protocols. Exposure to a cheerfully and, for the most part, consistently validating environment as well as increased opportunities for socialising can indeed be conducive to health. But there are also (what were, for me, largely unforeseen) consequences. Since we unfortunately live in a highly materialistic and appearance-oriented culture, the desire to be deemed beautiful is so deeply enmeshed in the desire to be “in” for its own sake; in fact, one might even say the two were the same (at any rate, the former is at least your quickest, easy ticket to the latter). Sure, you may have had an ardour for beauty all along but that’ll swiftly be encroached upon by a public welcome sounding your admission into The Attractive. And with time – after you’ve acclimated to the intoxicating flavour of the wine members are offered (and it is irresistibly intoxicating) – I’d wager you wouldn’t be able to disentangle your original partiality from the nuances of a deep-seated horror of rejection. An Inner Ring with that as its presiding air, I’m convinced, knows not the real, enduring gratification that comes from partaking in something of a mania for, say, Roo Panes’ reflective, intimate folk or Ben Howard’s vividly melancholic arpeggios. Lewis elaborates:
The circle cannot have from within the charm it had from outside. By the very act of admitting you it has lost its magic. Once the first novelty is worn off, the members of this circle will be no more interesting than your old friends. Why should they be? You were not looking for virtue or kindness or loyalty or humour or learning or wit or any of the things that can be really enjoyed. You merely wanted to be “in.” And that is a pleasure that cannot last. As soon as your new associates have been staled to you by custom, you will be looking for another Ring. The rainbow’s end will still be ahead of you. The old Ring will now be only the drab background for your endeavour to enter the new one.
And these new ones in my case were – are – deeper rings within The Attractive. It also didn’t help to be socially anxious and preoccupied with your physical attractiveness; the two were, in many instances, negatively correlated (especially when you factor in an anxiety-induced sleeping disorder, as sleep is monumentally crucial to freshness of appearance). Thus, with increasing doubt about the consistency of my allure – with each misinterpretation of a stranger’s abrupt termination of (what can feel like soul-discerning) eye contact as an unmistakably negative judgment of my aspect – I increased my efforts to penetrate into the deeper levels of the cohort, to elevate my rank and to secure my position. There was none of that life-enriching mutually-reinforcing feedback that characterised true friendship, only the helter-skelter of fear-dictated “struggle, competition, confusion, graft, disappointment, and advertisement.” And to be honest, despite recognising this, I still frittered away the sum of my energies on it, which left me with little to dedicate to cultivating and maintaining genuine friendships. I wasn’t satisfied with inhabiting the outskirts of the Ring – with being pretty to only some – because I wanted to be permanently appealing to all. That was (and at times still is) my rainbow’s end. What was initially a more or less disinterested, peripheral, “innocent” acknowledgement of a stimulating physicality was perverted by a pride – and inadvertently an insecurity – induced in part by fickle-natured public praise. As soon as The Attractive was discovered – as soon as my membership in it was discovered – the “inner-ringing” desire in me proper to it flowered and took up what I regret to say looks, for the moment, like a permanent, clamorous residence in my heart. I got what I asked for, just not in the way I had envisioned it.