Letter to a Young Voter

Dear fellow citizen–dear friend,

Most of us do not choose our countries, but are born or otherwise thrown into them by forces beyond our control. Most of our fellow citizens are strangers, living lives that are unlike ours, and the issues affecting all of us are bigger than any one individual can hope to thoroughly understand. Nonetheless, these are the societies in which we live and move and have our being. On the most fundamental level, they shape us, and we shape them, not by our personal power or wisdom, but by our participation.

On a grand scale, this is the same process that takes place when I sit my 16 month old daughter (youngest of 5) down at the table with us for dinner. There is shouting and chaos, but eventually we are all gathered around, with little Gwenna secured in her high chair. She doesn’t know as much about the process of eating dinner as the rest of us. She doesn’t use silverware very well, is completely unqualified to help set the table, and might not always care to eat the same food as the rest of us. She may not particularly want to sit in her chair. But when we all sit down, she reaches out her little hands to each side and starts to hum–because we say grace by holding hands and singing the “Johnny Appleseed” song. And by gosh, no matter how much of a mess she makes of eating, she is darned well going to participate in the meal, because she is part of the family.

Over time, our continued devotion to participating in meals together will teach her what she needs to know about the process. Along the way, she will shape not only her own character, but ours as well, as we work to include her in the mealtime ritual. So we don?t worry about how much she knows about eating or whether we are serving her particularly favorite food. Sometimes we will eat what she chooses, and sometime she will have to abide by our choices. Either way, we want her to participate. Our devotion to the practice of eating together is part of our devotion to each other. We can’t do it without her.

How does this translate into civic life? This is from Richard C. Harwood?s essay, “Devotion” (PDF)

At issue is a test of our character, a test that focuses on one small but profound word: devotion Lately, I have been reading about people who pray successfully–better put, who pray fully. I suspect that many of us pray only halfway. We go through the rituals, say the right words, show up at the designated times. But to pray fully means that bring your full self. You must relinquish yourself–not in terms of giving up or giving in, but embracing your devotion. When we pray fully, we open ourselves up to engage–to hear, to listen and, yes, even to believe. In our society–in our public lives–we need such devotion.

I believe there is a pressing need in our country for a deeper patriotism that truly expresses our devotion. Look up the word patriotism and you find that it means simply “a devotion to, a love of, one’s country.” Although there can be an ugly side to such patriotism, I believe our nation’s history suggests time and again the possibility for something quite different something quite beautiful.

Each generation before us has sought to better fulfill the promise of democracy. We must do the same. This genuine devotion is rooted in a sense of love for our public life so deep that it calls us to search for what is good and right, especially when such a path is the hardest to walk.

When it comes to exercising devotion in public life, we must adopt what Woodrow Wilson once called a “posture of ownership.” The exit strategy we employ is based on a mind-set that tells us we can “visit” public life when it is to our liking or convenience, and then go home whenever that suits us better. But consider the difference between visiting a place and residing there. A true resident takes ownership; a visitor assumes a posture of convenient exit. Genuine devotion tells us to stay.

From the time we are small, we are all reared with a simple adage: if you expect little of yourself, you give little. It is no different in public life and politics. A devotion to public life and politics calls upon us to hold higher expectations for ourselves. It tells us to exercise those expectations and hold ourselves accountable to them.

Like other rituals, voting is about more than the material mechanics of counting and decision. (“The cup of blessing which we bless,” said St. Paul of a greater ritual, “Is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”) There is a meaning behind the mechanics, and the fate of nations hangs in the balance. It can be an intimidating responsibility. Many are tempted to despair of making a difference (and thus to become cynical and withdrawn), or to turn away from trust & goodwill toward our fellow citizens, breaking faith with our quest for the common good (and thus descend into ideological bickering, slander, and hatred).

But I believe, my friend–indeed, I hope!–that we can as a nation recover when we fall into such temptations. I believe we can develop habits of “political friendship” (to borrow a concept from Aristotle via Danielle S. Allen’s book, Talking to Strangers) that allow us to see each other’s differences clearly, to respect the sacrifices that our society requires and the privileges it bestows, and to choose ways of life that preserve generosity, equality, and liberty for all. Such friendship among citizens requires lots of practice; we are never finished practicing it. Each of us has much to learn that we do not yet know–facts & issues to sort out, biases to challenge, strangers to talk to. And with each decision, some of us will lose, and some of us will make our fellow citizens loose. It will require all our urgency, and all our patience. We won’t get it right every time, but with civic faith, and hope, and love, we can continually search for a better way forward together.

Voting is not a right or a privilege to be exercised by just the confident, the qualified, or the enthusiastic. It is an invitation to participate in our local and national family. When my daughter is fourteen years old, I hope she will still accept the invitation to participate in dinner with her family. When she is eighteen, I hope she will accept the invitation to participate in our civic life as well by voting, because that participation will draw her in to fellowship in our society, no matter how underinformed, overwhelmed, disconnected, or discouraged she may feel at that young age by the complexities of the nation around her.

It’s late in the election cycle, and I do not know if you have yet registered to vote, but I exhort you as my fellow citizen, my political friend, to go and vote. And after that, to participate in other ways, by reading, commenting, contributing, serving, listening, speaking, advocating. Politics grows from the practice of everyday life in the presence of strangers and friends. It doesn’t matter whether you have everything figured out yet–just participate. Be devoted–make a sacrifice of devotion–to the city and nation in which you have found yourself. They are your family, and they need you.


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