Prisoners of Self

Incessant Autobiography in the Smartphone Age

The man doting over a smartphone screen, scrolling through media with his fingertips, is like a gorilla meticulously picking out little bugs from his own hair.

That was the subversive quip of anthropologist Thomas de Zengotita. For both the screen addict and the gorilla, neck-down focus is the attentive posture of self-image grooming.

The association here is funny (and not funny), and if C.S. Lewis were alive in the digital age, I think he’d be letting out a hearty laugh at the correlation. He would certainly offer up many warnings to us, and probably one of them would be the dangers of getting preoccupied with self-image care, or, what he called, “incessant autobiography.”

In his absence, I’ll do my best to explain his connections.

Satan as Globetrotter

Lewis’s warning against “incessant autobiography” originates from his reflections on John Milton’s Paradise Lost in a little book Lewis published as A Preface to Paradise Lost.

There Lewis is struck by Milton’s Satan, and his repressive self-focus.

Milton’s Satan, not unlike the Satan of Scripture, is a globetrotter, traveling from the heights of heaven all the way to the depths of hell. A freewheeling presence with limitless powers of travel and presence, teleporting around the cosmos with what seems to be a freedom of range unmatched by any other creature (Isaiah 14:12–13; Job 1:7; 2:2; Luke 10:18; 1 Peter 5:8; Revelation 12:9).

But by his cosmic travels, Satan is driven deeper into a corrupting narcissism. Unconcerned with any values or judgments outside of himself, he becomes his own god, or so he thinks. In reality he is a creature stuck inside the eternal prison of himself. He seems to have an unlimited supply of frequent flier miles to travel the cosmos, but in reality, he is bound inside the solitary confinement of himself, a prison he can never escape.

Milton’s Satan is stuck. Everything he says is propaganda about himself. He has no hope of escaping the acid of his narcissism. He cannot simply be a creature in the presence of his Maker. He speaks only about himself. He loves only himself. He is focused on only himself.

Thus, writes Lewis, “To admire Satan in Paradise Lost, is to give one’s vote not only for a world of misery, but also for a world of lies and propaganda, of wishful thinking, of incessant autobiography” (102).

Adam in Quarantine

In stark contrast we find Milton’s pre-fall Adam, who thrives in the reverse condition, observes Lewis.

Adam talks about God, the Forbidden Tree, sleep, the difference between beast and man, his plans for the morrow, the stars and the angels. He discusses dreams and clouds, the sun, the moon, and the planets, the winds and the birds. He relates his own creation and celebrates the beauty and majesty of Eve. . . .

Adam, though locally confined to a small park on a small planet, has interests that embrace “all the choir of heaven and all the furniture of earth.” Satan has been in the Heaven of Heavens and in the abyss of Hell, and surveyed all that lies between them, and in that whole immensity has found only one thing that interests Satan. (102)

Satan has been everywhere, and all he can think about is himself.

Adam has been just about nowhere, and all he can think about are the wonders around him.

Adam is confined, and yet his mind fixates on universal marvels. This profoundly insightful comment from Lewis opens up to us a whole world of thought in the age of smartphones and social media (not to mention global travel).

Sin’s Boredom

We cannot miss these two contrasts.

First, Satan is a picture of self-centered boredom; Adam is a picture of God-centered awe.

Satan has fallen in a trap Tim Keller calls “advanced sin.” Advanced sin makes you especially bored and especially boring. Why? “Because all you’re ever worried about is how you’re doing, how you look, how things are affecting you. There’s always a grievance. Incessant autobiography. You can never get out of yourself. You’re always feeling sorry for yourself.

“Sin makes you mediocre. There’s nothing more boring than somebody who’s always worried about how they look. Sin makes you these very uninteresting, unprincipled, shallow, boring people. Sleepless, unsmiling concentration on the self. That’s the essence of sin. Sin does not make you bad before it makes you boring,” warns Keller. “That’s the primary thing about sin. Incessant autobiography.”

“There is indeed something Satanic about a person who has no interests other than themselves,” says Lewis. Such self-consummation, such narcissism, reflects the truest and deepest boredom of Satan himself.

Smartphones and Travel

Second, we see a profound contrast about the ways boundaries allow the mind and heart to feast on the wonders of God and creation.

Adam has embraced his embodied finitude, embraced his home, his local garden, and from this rootedness, his heart expands out into all the expanses of the cosmos around himself. Adam is alive to wonder and filled with heartfelt celebration as he focuses on what is outside of himself. This is because Adam is grounded.

Milton saw it. Lewis saw it in Milton. Keller sees it in Milton and Lewis. And Chesterton saw it, too.

There is a humility that allows us to be rooted people. “The moment we are rooted in a place, the place vanishes. We live like a tree with the whole strength of the universe,” G.K. Chesterton once wrote:

“The globetrotter lives in a smaller world than the peasant. He is always breathing an air of locality. . . . The man in the saloon steamer has seen all the races of men, and he is thinking of the things that divide men — diet, dress, decorum, rings in the nose as in Africa, or in the ears as in Europe, blue paint among the ancients, or red paint among the modern Britons. The man in the cabbage field has seen nothing at all; but he is thinking of the things that unite men — hunger and babies, and the beauty of women, and the promise or menace of the sky. . . . [The] globetrotter . . . has not the patience to become part of anything” (Works, 1:60).

Adam’s life is intentionally rooted in one place. He was created for one place. Called to serve one place. And once you find yourself rooted deep in such a place, then your interests naturally branch out into the cosmic and universal.

Wonder’s Boundary Line

Living within physical boundaries and limitations — like the boundary line around orthodox theology — awakens us to new glories. Boundaries evoke a new sense of worshipful wonder, said Chesterton, as “the largest wilderness looks larger seen through a window.”

Physically, this is what rivets us to movies like The Swiss Family Robinson (1960). “Though at first the ocean surrounding the island on which the Robinsons shipwreck seems like a limiting edge, after a while they realize the wealth and beauty of the island and create their own society, a society that we (the audience) find rich and adventurous — thus the appeal” (Harden, 17).

But the limiting edge of our mortal lives gets lifted in the digital age. Smartphones are a portal into the heights and depths of the known universe. Our addiction to smartphones is the love of freedom from boundaries, the ability to escape all the limits of space and even of time. We become globetrotters. And all our freedom merely breeds inside of us more boredoms, making it harder to wonder in the presence of universals.

Are You Stuck in the Mirror?

The sum of all this? We are quick to use technology and travel as escapes from the boundaries of place-ed-ness. We hate being confined to our physical location. We are desperate for escape. We travel so that we can validate ourselves on social media. We take trips, not so that we can enjoy other places, but so that we can showcase ourselves.

For many, global mobility is driven by the desire to craft the next chapter in our “incessant autobiography.” And while at home, we travel the virtual world but find ourselves stuck inside of our own narcissism. What we project to the world becomes our driving motive, the aim of our travels, and the end of our digital lives. We become boring and blind to wonder.

Whether we find ourselves addicted to global travel or addicted to scouring the worldwide web, we need Christ to sever the narcissism of our hearts, to protect us from the poison of relentless self-focus, and to free us from the awe-killing prison of our own “incessant autobiography.” We were made to be rooted, and to be rooted, to find awe and wonder outside of ourselves.