Amiss: I Was Wrong About Voting
Our high-school English teacher inadvertently set a Lutheran task before us.
She extended a title—Where I Stand—and accompanying assignment: pen a series of statements lining out the convictions carrying us from young adulthood into the clutches of the real, untidy thing.
My near-photographic memory shuts off here. This act of mercy spares me the stair-step shape of the page’s header, the symmetry of paragraphs living between one-inch margins, whatever romantic theses seemed worth preserving in ink.
My mind erases all but one phrase, a statement of faith in a particular theory of economics. Before I appreciated how justice rolls in waves and breakers, apparently I saw something in the trickle down. Glancing back, I can’t quite trace the drip, drip, drop back to its source. A younger version of me saw the phrase somewhere, read reason into it, and judged it worth perpetuating on another sheet of paper.
My eyes hurt, squinting into the sunburst of a 17-year-old laying claim to an idea he didn’t understand. A greater trouble delivers the shadow as I remember how long I professed a politics that began and ended in my own mind. A whole world receded, mattering less than what seemed right to me.
From classrooms to voting booths, I staked out positions that made sense on paper before consigning them to inky circles. Voting, like so many forms of prayer, happened in a secret, quiet place of my choosing; there I rehearsed, then expressed, words handed down by saints operating in my side mirrors. Out of the overflow of the worldview, the vote was cast.
Squeezing between the lines of other people’s stories—in books and news dispatches, conversation and presence—I tripped over the Bible’s two great not-so-rhetorical questions. Am I my brother’s keeper? And who is my neighbor?
Stories precede a thaw, which anticipates repentance. Squeezing between the lines of other people’s stories—in books and news dispatches, conversation and presence—I tripped over the Bible’s two great not-so-rhetorical questions. Am I my brother’s keeper? And who is my neighbor? Carrying around those questions, and their implied answers, revealed the folly of a self-contained politics. And I saw how wrong I was about voting.
Children love to tag along when their parents vote, craning their necks for a glance at something confidential. Whether in their squirming presence or in spirit, my son accompanies me to every vote. So do the people on my block. And the single mom whose story I read online the month before.
Once I voted to make peace with paper; now I vote for people.
The cubicle grows crowded. Survivors of school shootings, death-row inmates, and families across oceans peek over my shoulder, watching my every pen stroke. Once I voted to make peace with paper; now I vote for people.
Letting my hand slip, the ink runs off the page to connect dots between ideas and others' lives. I grow more aware of what happens when I elevate philosophy over lived experience; how cracks split the sidewalk gray from my house to yours when I believe my itching ears over history and testimony.
And I come to know what binds me to others. Our lives lean toward the Zulu word “ubuntu,” the idea that—as one writer translated it—“a person is a person through other people.” The term finds its echo in Jeremiah, where God shows his exiles that they prosper as their neighbors do. Once I voted to express who I thought I was—or was supposed to be; now I vote because of who I am in community, or at least how I want to live with you.
Well-meaning disciples mouth the phrase “Vote your values.” I never stopped lining up behind those three little words; only now I value someone else’s flourishing above my own. Now I watch as my wants—and someone else’s needs—blur until I can’t tell where one begins or ends.
Prayers still rise from the voting booth like incense wisps. But the space seems more like a confessional. Forgive me, Father, for what transpired since I was last here. For privilege unacknowledged. For things left undone. I have not known you as I ought, or loved my neighbor as myself.
Well-meaning disciples mouth the phrase “Vote your values.” I never stopped lining up behind those three little words; only now I value someone else’s flourishing above my own.
Some part of me pities voters content to live on paper. Some resemble how I used to look—young men with pale skin, patchy beards, less age around the eyes; others reflect how I once lived, unburdened by the presence of others. Mostly, I thank God for deliverance from such loneliness.
Let political scientists come along and call me naive. Let smarter people remind me that I’ll never cast a perfect vote. Both are probably right. But if you catch me erring, let it be on the side of my neighbor’s good, not leaning on my own understanding. Carrying other faces and stories with me, I don’t mind marking paper with permanent ink.
No longer where I stand, but where we stand. I can do no other, God help me.