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October 20, 2015

There’s all this goodness and decency and common sense on the ground

books0515robinson“At present, here in what is still sometimes called our Calvinist civilization, the controversies of liberalism and conservatism come down, as always, to economics. How exclusive is our claim to what we earn, own, inherit?Are the poor among us injured by the difficulties of their lives, or are the better among them braced and stimulated by the pinch of want? Is Edwards undermining morality when he says “it is better to give to several that are not objects of charity, than to send away empty one that is”? Would we be better friends of traditional values, therefore better Christians, if we exploited the coercive potential of need on the one hand and help on the other?…” —Marilynne Robinson, “Open the Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism.”

It’s been fascinating to be reading Marilynne Robinson’s essay collection, When I Was A Child I Read Books, during the last few days. I bought this book at the Victoria College Book Sale at the urging of my friend Kate, though I was wary of it—the religion, the erudition. But then I read President Obama’s interview with Robinson and realized I needed to explore Robinson’s ideas further, particularly as my own country has been standing at a major crossroads. Obama and Robinson’s discussion about “the sinister other,” about democracy, about faith and religion—it all seemed so relevant. I wanted a deeper understanding of where we might be going, and yes, I also wanted that feeling that you get, that whatever else is wrong with the world, at least Marilynne Robinson is in it.

Thankfully, Canadians made a choice against hatred and divisiveness yesterday, and I am so relived that glad that this awful era has ended. Though I know it’s not quite as simple as that—it is indeed a terrifically good time to be non-partisan, but I know many of my friends were pretty devastated to see the NDP garner such enormous losses. There terribleness of the last ten years has only underlined that we have centuries of colonial tragedy to reconcile with. I know that the new Liberal government will have to be held to account on their election promises. And it’s interesting to read the “Open the Hand Wide…” essay from Robinson, on the etymological and political origins of “liberal.”

ledger-of-the-open-handInteresting too to think of Leslie Vryenhoek’s novel, The Ledger of the Open Hand, which I really enjoyed just a few weeks and whose review I began with Marsha Lederman’s line, “Great civilizations aren’t remembered for their tax policies.” This has also been a book that resonates, and is concerned with the same theological issues that Robinson raises in her essay. It’s all very circular.

And of course it is. Lines from When I Was a Child… have been sticking with me, no matter that the book is indeed a demanding read, requiring patience and concentration. But oh, the rewards. “Imagination and Community” concludes with “The great truth that is too often forgotten is that it is in the nature of people to do good to one another.” I firmly believe this. Monday’s result is a testament to that—a rejection of a vision of the world entrenched in othering, hatred and greed.

So yes, it’s all very circular. Tonight I was reading the latest post at Calm Things, the blog by Shawna Lemay (whose novel arrived in the mail today!). The post is entitled “three small kindnesses.” It seemed in keeping with everything I’ve been thinking about. Lemay writes, “So I’ve been thinking this week about goodness, kindness, compassion, decency.” And naturally, she comes back to the Obama interview with Marilynne Robinson. Obama saying: “And the thing I’ve been struggling with throughout my political career is how do you close the gap. There’s all this goodness and decency and common sense on the ground, and somehow it gets translated into rigid, dogmatic, often mean-spirited politics.”

Sometimes—it’s heartening to see—goodness and decency prevail.

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