Stuck inside together–the lessons of Screwtape.

The Screwtape Letters (C.S. Lewis) was written as a series of letters of instruction from an experienced devil (Screwtape) to a junior tempter (Wormwood) on how to successfully tempt humans. In one particularly notable letter, Screwtape described how to inflame domestic hatred between a mother and son:

When two humans have lived together for many years, it usually happens that each has tones of voice and expressions of face which are almost unenduringly irritating to the other. Work on that. Bring fully into the consciousness of your patient that particular lift of his mother’s eyebrows which he learned to dislike in the nursery, and let him think how much he dislikes it. Let him assume that she knows how annoying it is and does it to annoy—if you know your job he will not notice the immense improbability of the assumption. And, of course, never let him suspect that he has tones and looks which similarly annoy her.

In civilized life domestic hatred usually expresses itself by saying things which would appear quite harmless on paper (the words are not offensive) but in such a voice, or at such a moment, that they are not far from a blow in the face. To keep this game up you…must see to it that each of these two fools has a sort of double standard. Your patient must demand that all his utterances are to be taken at their face value and judged simply on the actual words, while at the same time judging all his mother’s utterances with the fullest and most oversensitive interpretation of the tone and the context and the suspected intention. She must be encouraged to do the same to him. Hence from every quarrel they can both go away convinced, or very nearly convinced, that they are quite innocent. Once this habit is well established you have the delightful situation of a human saying things with the express purpose of offending and yet having a grievance when offence is taken.”

Are you “stuck” at home with spouse, kids, roommates during “shelter-at-home-self-quarantine” week, month however long it lasts? Are you already bored with streaming video options–Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video, Apple TV, YouTube–and the thousands of TV programs and movies they provide? Are you tempted, perhaps, to read (you know, allowing the written word to stimulate your imagination or educate)? I just read a celebrity’s take, and before we all roll our eyes or nod knowingly at the word celebrity, this one has some very intelligent advice. Reese Witherspoon’s house has 5 adults each trying to work or school from home. Here’s what she says: “I think it’s really important to designate space. My husband and I are both working from home and all three kids are doing school online,” said the actress, who also works as a producer. “So everybody has a room that has a little area and there’s a privacy sign there, so when the privacy sign is on and your headphones are on, you can’t interrupt. You have to have rules. … It’s really important to post them on the wall for your family, just so we respect each other’s space.” As for college students at home, “I think a lot about people who are coming home from college. That’s a time when you are trying to individuate,” Witherspoon said. “You have to actually kind of move away from your parents’ ideas, you have to move away from their structure, their routine, create your own. And now you’re having to go backwards. And that must be so frustrating to lose that independence.”

It all comes down to empathy, doesn’t it? In Christian parlance, that’s “suffering with” in suffering, “coming alongside” in other times. Notice how mama Witherspoon empathizes with her kids “losing their independence”. Still privileged you say? So what, don’t we all feel our own frustrations, no matter how minor, more emotionally than the much objectively greater suffering of others, especially when we aren’t living with them? I just read about indoor air pollution, and it reminded me of some tips for living in close proximity with others, so here are Uncle Curmudgeon’s tips for surviving self quarantine with others whom you still want a relationship with after the new normal resumes:

1. Smells, odors and fragrances: A smell is more or less neutral, an odor usually stinks and a fragrance is usually pleasant, but perfumes and colognes don’t cover up odors of frying onions, garlic, or unwashed bodies, they just add a sickly overlay. Shower (rather than bathe, unless you scrub the tub ring) frequently. How often is that? Ask your cellmates, “do I reek?” If yes, it’s time. Remember, when Archimedes was running around Athens shouting “eureka” about his latest discovery, he was telling Athenians it was bath time! As for cooking, think fresh bread, cookies, coffee, not onions, garlic or hard boiled eggs! Your cellmates will thank you. Don’t buy Durian fruit either.

2. Random, voluntary sounds: Just because they are “voluntary”, doesn’t mean you’re aware of making them. Grinding or chomping your teeth, clicking pens, tapping or drumming on hard surfaces, not to mention cursing, farting, or burping out loud, are annoying, impolite and even cringeworthy. Stop it. Or close the door and stuff towels under it. What if you don’t have doors, only privacy curtains? Pretend someone else is in the room with you, blame them, then stop it.

3. Involuntary bodily sounds: These include stomach gurgling (eat something), choking (Heimlich maneuver), coughing (too late for quarantine?), moaning in your sleep, moaning while awake (it’s a good idea to refrain from loud sex during this time), and the worst of all, incessant unnecessary talking, including automatic criticism and nagging. Keep all household guns securely locked away during such interludes.

4. Wearing dirty, smelly clothing, or no clothing if your body is gross: Seriously, you need a blog for advice on what to do about this?

5. Do what the Bible says: “The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.” 1 Peter 4:7-9. Hopefully, “the end of all things” means the old ways of doing and relating. Love does cover all.