I am not a political person. It’s simply never been of interest to me — the energy required to invest in social media arguments, the hot-take culture. I like to think I have a decent understanding of current events, but I often choose not to put too much skin in the game. Perhaps most significantly, voting was never much of a concern, never something I looked forward to, so when I turned 18, I never registered.
While some may credit my indifference to laziness (I’ll admit, this may have been part of the problem), my decision to refrain from voting can be traced back to the same thing which inspires much of my thought: literature. As a writer, it is my inclination to find wisdom in writing from artists both living and dead. While authors of past generations have certainly made profound statements regarding the role of democracy, I find that as far as living authors go, there is no one who does this better than Marilynne Robinson, and in a year unlike any other, her works have uncovered a new angle to the questions surrounding this year’s election.
Robinson’s most recent publication is a collection of essays entitled The Givenness of Things. Released in October 2015, the book explores facets of thought from past theologians and scholars and applies their practices in calling attention to the current state of religion and politics in America. She tackles topics like humanism, metaphysics, memory and experience, then somehow grounds these abstract concepts in concrete issues, like gun control and immigration.
The collection as a whole reminds me of my first exposure to Robinson’s work at Calvin College’s Festival of Faith in Writing in 2012. Her keynote address came at a very early point in my literary career; I had no clue who this person was, let alone that she was Barack Obama’s favorite author and had a Pulitzer under her belt. Still, I carry much of what she discussed with me as I navigate young adulthood, including the issue at hand.
In this address, Robinson mainly discussed imagination, particularly as it relates to fear. We often think of imagination in childish terms; we applaud a child’s ability to pretend, to create a universe untethered from television or the internet and play within an invented set of rules. We also think of it in regards to creativity — the ability to craft characters and their stories at will. What Robinson posited was a more practical use of the imagination: solving problems through creativity and critical thinking, a process which creates a solution that benefits the greater good. Ultimately, Robinson claimed, this would result in fewer attempts to resolve conflict through violence.
For me, this call for peace hit home. I imagined a global dialogue which downplayed our natural instinct to use force or to rely on physical strength to intimidate our opponents into surrender. I imagined peace in our communities borne from thoughtful discussion and gracious listening. I imagined, and I hoped I could be a part of this solution.
Of course, I was realizing all this in 2012, so I drew a natural conclusion and used that year’s election as a way to practice this rhetoric. Perhaps it was short-sighted and naive of me; there are many angles to each candidate’s platform which ought to be considered when casting one’s vote. Disagreeing with one of these issues should not necessarily disqualify them from consideration. Still, I eschewed this logic and ground myself under the flag of pacifism. I made a decision to stand back from politics unless I found a candidate with a platform that championed such a worldview.
Fast forward to present day. Perhaps it was no coincidence that I encountered The Givenness of Things in July of this year, just as the Democratic National Convention was wrapping up. Robinson’s focus in this collection is the national consciousness, especially in regards to the intersection of our cultural heritage and the pragmatics of democracy — where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. As she says at one point, “I still see the best impulses of the country expressed in its politics, and its worst impulses as well.” It is this distance that she attempts to rectify, aiming to steer the reader toward their better impulses.
Most of these worst impulses are driven by fear, particularly a fear of the other. It is not hard to see how this fear manifests itself: an increase in gun ownership and violence, countless incidents of police brutality against minorities, and threats to build walls around our borders. In our worst moments, we see another person whose experience doesn’t fit ours, and we react with violence or oppressive legislature.
On the other hand, Robinson shows that following these better impulses requires us to think outside of our own immediate experience. To put it in terms related to her 2012 address, we are called to use our imagination and do what is best for the greater good. It is a call for global discussion — a call to understand one another’s experiences more fully — rather than fearing and taking up arms against our neighbors. As Robinson says in the essay “Awakening,” “It is potentially a very costly indulgence to fear indiscriminately, and to try to stimulate fear in others, just for the excitement of it.” Fear begets fear, violence begets violence, but listening and understanding open the doors for solutions.
Reading The Givenness of Things forced me to reconsider my role in the national discussion, to use my imagination in the way it was truly intended: to make a positive influence on my community, my nation. Again, in “Awakening,” Robinson quotes Owen Lovejoy, a close friend and confidant of Abraham Lincoln, who had the following to say about the “real and grave” responsibility of the American citizen: “Every individual in this country that has arrived at years of discretion, and especially every voter, is responsible for the laws which are enacted and the manner of their execution.”
Lovejoy’s quote expresses why I have decided to vote in this election: I am ultimately held responsible for the results, for the next four years of this country. Each of us are. Standing on the sidelines suggests an indifference to the future of my community, and in a time as tumultuous as now, I cannot do that in good conscience.
For me, it took something as simple as taking a page from Robinson’s book — literally. I imagined our country’s future, and I decided I would uphold my responsibilities as an American citizen until my imagined future becomes a reality. I asked myself some questions: What does the ideal future look like? What is my role? Are people safely pursuing happiness? Is my community better off than it is now?
To the noncommittal: I urge you to reconsider. Imagine what kind of society you want to be a part of, what kind of world you want for the next generation. Ask yourself the questions above. No matter the reality of our country’s future, we are all responsible for the outcome, whether we are active in its formation or not.