On Marilynne Robinson

On the day after the election, I wore all blacks and greys to work. (Why, yes. I am dramatic.)

And then I picked myself up, and started reading Marilynne Robinson.

Few writers write as hopefully about human beings as Robinson does. In every soul she sees something wondrous. Nor is her hopefulness naiveté. It is grace, the firm belief that however thorny the world that we live in, behind it and through it, and within us, is the handprint of God, that enables her to see the saintliness of humanity, where others see only sinners.

Of the essays in The Death of Adam, the one that most struck me was “Facing Reality,” in which she pushes back against our gloomy worldview, our anxiety over the health of our bodies and of our 401Ks. This, she writes, is not a reasonable outlook:

When [we] make fear the key to interpretation of history and experience, nothing contains a greater potential for releasing all the varieties of destruction. Fearfulness assumes a hidden narrative – that we are ill despite our apparent health, vulnerable despite our apparent safety. We are contemptuous of transient well-being, as if there were any other kind. Routinely discounting the preponderance of evidence is not the behavior of reasonable people, nor is devaluing present experience because it may be overtaken by something worse.

What I find most fascinating about this passage is Robinson’s thoughts on fear. 

It is first of all fixated on the physical. Robinson mentions illness and health, vulnerability and safety, suggesting that the fear which drives us is fear for our worldly well-being. Later, she writes that “the true name for what we aspire to is nonfailure,” having our “income and credit shrewdly managed” and thus being comfortably well-off. Whatever challenges this comfort, whatever threatens the perception that we are (by worldly standards) successful, this is the cause of our fear.

Our fear is also illusory. Robinson makes no bones about the fact that she scorns the cause of our fear, this concern with worldly well-being; yet our fears are, like most fears, completely irrational. We appear, Robinson notes, both healthy and safe; the “preponderance of evidence” testifies to the fact that we are as well off as can be expected in a changing world. To expect that we will remain forever well off is to expect far more than this world can give.

Robinson suggests in place of fear, a different way of being:

I think we are not taking responsibility for keeping ourselves reasonable, individually or collectively – that we no longer admire or reward reasonableness, because it has lost its place in our imagination.

I like the strength of will in this passage, her emphasis on “taking responsibility” and on “keeping ourselves reasonable.” The truth is, we are physical creatures, and so fears for our physical safety can run very high indeed; the strong, active verbs which Robinson chooses her suggests the difficulty in laying aside fear, in choosing not to make decisions based on fears for our well-being.

Yet lay aside those fears we must; otherwise, we are not being reasonable; we are not seeing the world as it is meant to be seen, as part of a larger whole and shot through with God’s grace.

Robinson’s writing reminds me of a passage from one of my favorite poems, T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Eliot writes,

 

Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

I find it interesting that Eliot rejects “the wisdom of old men,” for this wisdom is presumably a worldly wisdom, the wisdom of nonfailure. After all, what do old men know best by how to navigate this world which they have lived in longer than any of us?

Rather than the wisdom of old men, Eliot seeks out “their folly / Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession, / Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.”

At first glance, Eliot’s desire to hear the fears of old men seems to contradict Robinson’s refusal to follow the dictates of fear; but the fear which Eliot references here is not the same fear that Robinson refers to in her essay. No, the fear that Eliot’s poem describes is a spiritual fear, the awe and terror of a holy life. This is a “fear of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.” To belong to another is to have that other make claims upon you, claims which threaten your physical well-being; despite Eliot’s provocative phrasing, we enter gladly into such relationships throughout our lives, becoming marriage partners and parents and friends. We become disciples of Christ.

Such commitments are fearful, true. Eliot acknowledges this. Yet the fact that he invites these fears into his life suggests that the thing which he is truly afraid of is having no such commitments. Belonging to others and to God is indeed scary, but it would be more scary to belong to nobody at all.

I am reminded of that passage in The Horse and His Boy, when Hwin offers herself to be eaten by the Lion Aslan, for to her it would be greater pleasure to be eaten by him than fed by anyone else. Being eaten is indeed painful, but to surfeit on the things of this world, and yet find no deeper meaning in life, would be more painful still.

Eliot concludes in the end that “the only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility.”

I love the contrast here between acquiring and humility, for although we usually seek to acquire wealth, wealth is (as Robinson reminds us) impermanent. The only permanent thing is humility: a correct view of our place in this world, which is so much bigger than what we can see; a correct view of our connections to other people and to our divine Maker, on which we depend.

Ultimately, what Robinson and Eliot remind me of, and this is why I’m reading Robinson after the election, is that we must not let our actions be driven by fears of failure. What else did we expect? Everything in this world fails.

Everything, that is, expect the things which are beyond this world, and its profit and loss.

To those things we must cling.

 

 

 

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