Struggle and the Battle for Imagination

Training the Affections Through Art, Story, Education, and Good Habits

Struggle is good. It is through struggle that you and I become the sort of people we are, and it is through struggle that we form the attitudes and dispositions that eventually come to feel natural to us. It is also through struggle that we determine what we find enjoyable, attractive, and beautiful.

For example, if you think of the joy a married couple feels when celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary, few would doubt that such joy is the product of years of sacrifice, hard work, and maybe even hardship. Indeed, struggle is often a necessary prelude for joy. Ultimately, the reward of properly directed struggle is to become a certain sort of person, one who can delight in what is good, true, and beautiful.

It is easy to misunderstand the type of reward that comes at the end of struggle, since modern economic systems are built around reward incentives that usually have no organic connection to our labor. When I used to clean toilets for a living, the rewards that were intrinsic to my work (for example, the satisfaction of seeing a clean toilet) were not sufficient to motivate me to keep showing up to work each night. I showed up because of the paycheck, which was a reward entirely extrinsic from the work itself. 

Training the Affections

In the modern world, if we want to find examples of rewards that are organically connected to our work, we will be more likely to find them in the field of education and morality. I have a friend who achieves great joy by writing poems with alliterative meter in the style of Beowulf, yet his joy is only possible because he spent years studying Anglo-Saxon literature and language. Similarly, the enjoyment a man might derive from having a relationship with a modest, virtuous woman is organically related to the work of becoming virtuous himself. One who has not worked to appreciate good literature may puzzle why my friend would derive so much enjoyment from imitating Anglo-Saxon verse, just as a man who has not worked to cultivate virtue may find it hard to understand why another would enjoy having a relationship with a modest, virtuous woman. Yet it is through struggle, including the struggle of habit-forming behaviors that may initially feel contrived, that we arrive at our deepest dispositions that determine which behaviors eventually come to feel enjoyable to us.

The training of our desires and affections is, of course, the telos of education as classically conceived. Before education was taken over by relativism, educators believed it was their duty to form students according to what is really good, true, and beautiful. As C.S. Lewis put it in The Abolition of Man

The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting, and hateful…. From his earliest years [he] would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart. All this before he is of an age to reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her.

As modern men and women, it seems presumptuous that educators would aspire to train attitudes and preferences. We tend to assume that our preferences, and the emotions with which they are correlated, just happen to us like getting a cold, and are thus off limits to what can be trained through effort, behavior, and struggle. Thus, the assumption is that if we have to work at feeling a certain way, or if we have been influenced to feel a certain way by struggle, then the resulting feelings are somehow less authentic, less true to ourselves compared to dispositions that arise involuntarily and without effort. Accordingly, we may think that dispositions arising after a period of struggle, and after a period of habit-forming behaviors, are somehow artificial and fake. Culture and advertising reinforce this message, implying that we are at our most authentic when we are being spontaneous. 

But this is simply not accurate to how the world works, as we saw from the previous examples. The joy a married couple feels when celebrating their 40th anniversary is no less genuine merely because their relationship required enormous effort and work; in fact, quite the contrary. As any healthy married couple will tell you, for a relationship to thrive, one must continually engage in practices that cultivate closeness even when you don’t feel like it. For example, a man doesn’t only kiss his wife when he feels attracted to her; he also kisses his wife in order to cultivate feelings of attraction. This is similar to how the Christian will kneel to say prayers of repentance not merely when she feels penitent, but also to cultivate appropriate penitence.

How The Struggle-Free Life Became Attractive

In our culture of comfort and self-gratification, the concept of training our affections through struggle has fallen on hard times. In large part this has occurred, not because we have rationally deduced that struggle is no longer good for us (on the contrary, all the latest science attests to the value of struggle), but because our hearts and imagination have been stirred by the counterfeit beauty of comfort, ease, and the frictionless life. Our music, movies, and media present the path of least resistance as beautiful. For example, country music, once a genre where you could be sure to get inspired by the glory of hardship and struggle, has begun pandering to weakness by romanticizing comfort, convenience, and passivity.

On one level this is a worldview problem, related to many of the isms of modernity, including individualism, egotism, utilitarianism, and secular humanism. Yet the fundamental reason we fall for the allure of a struggle-free life is not primarily intellectual but because of corruption at the level of imagination. Once the imagination has become corrupted, it is easy to perceive things that are ugly, false, and dehumanizing as if they are ennobling, beautiful, and glorious.

That is why the new country music is so subversive. Through the use of powerful imagery in songs and music videos, the recurring message, "Don't struggle, just do what comes naturally,” is contextualized in a way that makes this message seem fun and romantic. Similarly, many contemporary movies—one thinks of the 2010 hit Eat Pray Love—promote a life of utter selfishness as truly therapeutic and self-fulfilling. 

There is an important spiritual truth to learn here, which is that the cosmic battle between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent often plays out in the domain of imagination. As I explained in my recent book Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation:

Satan is quite satisfied to let us go about our business as Christians—to attend church, to lobby our politicians, to have Bible studies and catechism classes—as long as he can control our imaginations. Once a child’s imagination has become corrupted, then all the church services, catechism classes, family worship, and good education in the world will accomplish little.

Imaginative Apologetics

This observation might lead us to disparage the imagination as if it is wholly bad, an instrument of the devil. Yet in the battle for our hearts and minds, the imagination is also a key instrument the Holy Spirit uses to reorder our affections. This is something that C.S. Lewis understood so well. In his work as a Christian apologist, Lewis used fiction as a vehicle for reordering the imagination.

Christian apologists today must defend the value of struggle, and while we can do this by appealing to the latest discoveries of social science, it is perhaps more important to use art and storytelling to reframe struggle. Art and storytelling can show, on a deep precognitive level, that struggle is beautiful, and that the type of frictionless life promoted by contemporary music and film is ugly, empty, and not even very romantic.

In a post later this week, I want to look at two movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood that vividly portray the beauty of struggle.

has a Master’s in History from King’s College London and a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is the blog and media managing editor for the Fellowship of St. James and a regular contributor to Touchstone and Salvo. He has worked as a ghost-writer, in addition to writing for a variety of publications, including the Colson Center, World Magazine, and The Symbolic World. Phillips is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches (Ancient Faith, 2020) and Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation (Ancient Faith, 2023) and co-author with Joshua Pauling of We're All Cyborgs Now (Basilian Media & Publishing, forthcoming). He operates the substack "The Epimethean" and blogs at www.robinmarkphillips.com.

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