When I wrote yesterday’s post on being right, I had not yet purchased, much less begun to read, Marilynne Robinson’s collection of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books, but I got to work early and the Yale Bookstore is next door . . . . I sat down this morning and read her preface, which is a beautiful and articulate piece about the nature of public life in our time, bouncing off of Walt Whitman’s understanding of public life in his time after the Civil War. Robinson writes:
But the language of public life has lost the character of generosity, and the largeness of spirit that a has created and supported the best of institutions and brought reform to the worst of them has been erased out of political memory . . . .
What if the cynicism that is supposed to be rigor and the acquisitiveness that is supposed to be realism are making us forget the origins of the greatness we lay claim to—power and wealth as secondary consequences of the progress of freedom, or, as Whitman would prefer, Democracy? (xiv, xv)
Her words do two things for me. First, they resonate deeply. I grieve the loss of a gentler public discourse, of honest collaboration across party lines and differing ideals. Second, the call me to confess my cynicism about our government and our political process. I have not watched any of the political debates because I think they have nothing to offer in return for my time spent. I have felt relatively hopeless about the upcoming election because I don’t see a functioning, responsible, and (dare I say it) inspirational government emerging from it. I find myself feeling the best I can do is vote against something, rather than for something, even though I know I have sold both myself and my country short in taking that perspective. Still, these days I have low expectations and I still assume I will be disappointed.
Since Robinson’s book is a collection of essays, I did not feel compelled to read them in order and flipped to one entitled “Imagination and Community,” hoping for a good word, and I found these words:
When people make such remarks [such as mine, above], such appalling judgments, they never include themselves, dear friends, those with whom they agree. They have drawn, as they say, a bright line between an”us” and a “them.” Those on the other side of the line are assumed to be unworthy of respect or hearing, and are in fact to be regarded as a huge problem to the “us” who presume to judge the “them.” This tedious pattern has repeated itself endlessly through hunan history and is, as I have said, the end of community and the beginning of tribalism . . . .
It is simply not possible to act in good faith toward people one does not respect, or to entertain hopes for them that are appropriate to their gifts. As we withdraw from one another, we withdraw from the world, expect as we increasingly insist that foreign groups and populations are our irreconcilable enemies. The shrinking of imaginative identification which allows such things as shared humanity to be forgotten always begins at home . (30-31)
Sunday after worship Ginger had a question and answer time with whomever wanted to come just so they could get to know her better, since we’ve only been here a little over three months. As she talked about her hopes for our church, she talked about the variety of theological perspectives in our congregation, which is true of most UCC churches. Then she said, “I get the feeling many of us don’t know each other well. What if we took the time and the risk to ask questions, to make ourselves vulnerable, and really get to know each other?”
Ginger’s question is a call to imagination: I will imagine there is more to you than I know. Such imagination will help to create the kind of community Robinson is talking about. When was the last time we sat down with someone who is not of like mind on whatever the issue and asked them to talk about it so we could listen, rather than correct them or assume we already know what they are going to say? When was the last time we took a risk to “speak what we feel and not what we ought to say” (to quote the closing words of King Lear), instead of holding our cards close to our vest because we can’t imagine our words will be welcome? How do we create a community where we can freely share the hopes and dreams of all the years?
I would say, for the moment, that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly. (21)
During our time in Durham we had a chance to be a part of Moral Monday Movement, which sparked my political imagination more than anything else in my recent memory. The movement is particular to North Carolina and a very personal attempt to build a more inclusive and compassionate community within the state. Its very particular nature is what gives it wider appeal and application. Other states have begun similar gatherings and protests. The spirit of the movement is fed by the nonviolent actions and protests of the Civil Rights Movement and seeks to create a conversation that finds its substance in the common good and making sure we are taking care of all of us. No Them; just Us.
Robinson closes her essay with these words:
It is very much in the gift of the community to enrich individual lives, and it is in the gift of any individual to enlarge and enrich community. The great truth that is too often forgotten is that it is in the nature of people to do good to one another. (33)
There’s no way, of course, I could write about imagination without John Lennon singing in my ear: “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”
I need to put that last phrase on repeat: I’m not the only one.
And I trust neither are you.