Essay

Marilynne Robinson on The Givenness of Things and Democracy

Did you ever try to write a poem attempting to capture a mind-to-mind, heart-to-heart encounter, sitting up half the night conversing with a brilliant person / kindred spirit, your heart bursting with a sensation of music, moonlight and the mystery of existence all mingled together?

Don’t bother; it’s impossible to put into words.

I’ve recently been savoring essays from Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson‘s 2015 collection, The Giveness of Things. I’d like to share my feelings about this book with you.

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I attempted to put my sentiments into an essay, but instead of communicating the moonlit, musical, mystery of existence welling up in my heart, I came off sounding like Marilynne Robinson’s parrot.

It’s difficult to write about The Giveness of Things because it’s a difficult book–chock-full of rigorous, abstract, theological, political, historical, literary, scholarly argument. It’s as difficult as maintaining democracy.

This might have been the sort of hoity-toity tome I usually slam shut with an exasperated hrumph. But in this case, all that intimidating knowledge is counterbalanced with humility, compassion and wisdom. I couldn’t stop reading. It’s so timely, it feels like soul-medicine. I expected the usual Robinsonian mixture of literature and theology. I didn’t expect that she would be speaking to the current political situation, and to my heart.

This collection is about the aspirations that truly, authentically make a nation great — unity, justice, domestic peace and liberty. Robinson seems to be of the mind that America could still become the nation it, at its inception, aspired to be. So this is a hopeful volume.

But this is also a wrenching lamentation of biblical proportion, heroically identifying the sins (she’s a self-proclaimed Calvinist) America needs to acknowledge, repent of, and make amends for — greed, racism, classism, narrow-minded arrogance, and above all, fear.

“Fear,” this Calvinist-Christian and lover of her country says to a nation which overwhelmingly self-identifies as Christian, “is not a Christian habit of mind.”

Robinson makes me aware that democracy is something for which we always must fight, not with violent words or weapons. We fight by first coming to a deep, clear understanding of who we as Americans are supposed to be and stand for. To win we must then abide by our noblest convictions.

America, she reiterates in one essay after another, was founded on the principle that all humans, by simple virtue of their humanity, are deserving of dignity, respect and compassion.

Divisiveness, greed, and hatred are not American habits of mind. Indignity, disrespect and cruelty are not American behaviors.

“To value one another is our greatest safety,” she writes, “and to indulge in fear and contempt is our gravest error.”

Robinson’s use of the personal-plural is designed to indict us and incite us to action. I’m moved to join her in calling for decency and respect in our speech and behavior. Here’s my credo now:

Note to Self

To be rich in love you must squander your love on every person you meet. Want your world changed, your country reformed, your life made safe? You cannot shirk, you cannot afford to leave the work to others. You must lead the revolution, you must be the cure. Begin now. To the people you don’t understand, offer kindness, a listening ear; to the people you cannot condone offer respect and dignity. If you lack courage, build it. Begin simply–offer a smile instead of a sneer. You will grow capable you will grow confident you will become a beautiful lover (love is a muscle you must build). So love those people who sour your stomach, then love the ones you fear, then go pro–love the people you hate. Because love
(you knew this once) is the only thing that makes your country, your city, your neighborhood, your family, you…

Great.

Who do you aspire to become and what will you stand for?

Photo credit: freestock.ca ♡ dare to share beauty via Visual hunt / CC BY

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3 thoughts on “Marilynne Robinson on The Givenness of Things and Democracy”

    1. Thank you, Jill. I’ve experienced your joyful and loving spirit, so you’re succeeding! I’m not posting very often (once/month is plenty). As you know, I have other priorities in my life these days. I pray for you every day!

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