Yes, I admit it. In my pain and confusion and fear and hope and general agitation over what’s happening in the political and social sphere this week, I’ve read far too many of the knee-jerk reactions that fill the press and the web. Some have been helpful, some have fuelled my anxiety but many – most I think – have been the work of but a few minutes or a few hours of thought, and have done little to deepen my understanding. Most of my reading has been an attempt to reassure myself, I realise, an unachievable project given the complexity of this moment.
Which is why I am so grateful for the depth, nuance and care of Marilynne Robinson’s writing, which I mentioned a few days ago. Today I have once again picked up her latest book ‘The Givenness of Things‘ (published a few weeks before the election). I have so appreciated her willingness to write about US culture and society with a long view of history, with its cycles and currents, its upwellings and eddies, it setbacks and its upsets. Through it I have come to see what a narrow frame I’ve been bringing to my understanding of the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency. Robinson – if you’re prepared to give her enough time and attention for her words to sink in – has so much to say that can help us to understand, that can support us in letting go of needing to know what is going to happen (as if we ever could!), and that can connect us again with our dignity and our hope.
In the chapter I’ve read today, Awakening, she warns us of the dangers of these times:
‘We have been reminded again lately how true it is that a small flame can cause a great fire. And that, to complete the allusion, the tongue is a flame.’
But she also warns us that we too easily make sense of events by what we think we know already, which inevitably leaves us with only a partial understanding:
‘Americans are always looking for trends and projecting them forward to their extremest possible consequences, as if there were no correctives or countervailing forces. “The crack in the teacup opens / A lane to the land of the dead.” But trends can be counted on to reverse themselves. I take much comfort from this fact… There is a truth that lies beyond our capacities. Our capacities are no standard or measure of truth, no ground of ethical understanding.’
Writing about the difference between a politics of ethics and a politics of identity (which all of us are liable to fall into when things get difficult), she says:
“Identity… appeals to a constellation of the worst human impulses. It is worse than ordinary tribalism because it assumes a more than virtuous us on one side, and on the other a them who are very doubtful indeed, who are, in fact, a threat to all we hold dear. Western civilization is notoriously inclined to idealize itself, so it is inclined as well to forget how recently it did and suffered enormities because it insisted on distinctions of just this kind.”
And lastly, she reminds us that there is much we can do, wherever in the world we live:
“Recurrences, atavisms, are by no means uniquely, or even especially, an American phenomenon. What are we to do? Prayer would be appropriate, and reflection. We should take very seriously what the dreadful past can tell us about our blindnesses and our predilections… Since we have not yet burned the taper of earthly existence down to its end, we still have time to muster the dignity and graciousness and courage that are uniquely our gift… Each of us and all of us know what human beauty could look like. We could let it have its moment. Fine, but would this solve the world’s problems? It might solve a good many of them, I think.”
The Givenness of Things is a deeply intelligent and compassionate book, unafraid to be paradoxical and complex, with writing that is clear as a bell. And I think it’s wonderful reading to help us make sense of these times.