You know the feeling—at some point in your life, you walked through hallways and sat in classes with “those” kids. The popular ones, who gossiped and dated each other, set the trends and made everyone else sigh with envy. They wore all the right clothes, listened to all the right music, talked about all the right things, were light, funny, smooth, and scornful. And oh, you wished that you could be a part of their circle, to have the privilege of laughing with them with your back to the rest of the world. You would have done anything for it—and perhaps you got the chance, and made it in, or perhaps (more likely) you never did.
This phenomena is what Lewis calls the “inner ring”—a “second”, “unwritten” hierarchy within another organization which nearly everyone desires to be a part of but which few belong to. Though rarely talked about, its presence is always felt. No one is officially admitted or expelled, and it’s membership is often difficult to pin down. However, between those who are clearly in and those who are clearly out an invisible line exists which produces in the first group smug superiority and in the second consuming desire and terror—desire for acceptance and terror at the thought of rejection. In fact, these feelings are so powerful, Lewis asserts, that the inner ring is “one of the most dominant elements” weighing on the minds of people of all ages and walks of life. It exists, not only in middle and high schools, but in colleges, in the workplace, in church and government and even in society at large. It is almost omnipresent, an inescapable feature of human life.
If the inner ring is unavoidable, however, is it really evil? After all, it can come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes—from whole social classes of people who talk and eat and dress a certain way, to a handful of intellectuals or a few officials with a philosophy or a vision all their own. Lewis argues that the presence of inner rings is not bad in and of itself—in fact, it can even be a good, healthy thing! It’s natural that people with similar taste and ideas should become friends, and even base their interactions on their shared interests and work. However, Lewis also draws a line between mere friendships and “inner rings”. Though a group of close friends may resemble an inner ring, their “secrecy is accidental, and [their] exclusiveness a by-product…no one was led thither by the lure of the esoteric”. A true inner ring “exists for exclusion”. It thrives on the longing and misery of outsiders; and furthermore even insiders are never satisfied, because there is always some other ring—one inside the first, or tangent to it—that he or she is still outside of. Friendships generate genuine pleasure. A ring, however, loses its appeal as soon as one enters it. It’s only charm is its unavailability—it is “a pleasure that cannot last”. And, as Lewis remarks, there is no motivation better than the desire to be accepted into the inner ring for “making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”
How are we to navigate our lives, when, as Lewis warns, the ever-present “quest for the Inner Ring will break [our] hearts unless [we] break it”? We will always be surrounded by inner rings. However, if we make our chief aim honest work, rather than acceptance by the local elite, we will be good at what we do. We will enjoy deep, lasting friendships, and, though we may not have the most influence or receive the most attention, we will be the most important, the solid foundation on which our craft, or society, or organization is built. We will matter, in a much truer sense than members of the inner ring, be respected by those who’s respect is worth having. And, in the end, we will be happier and more easily content with our lot in life.