Collective Fictions

OR, ‘The Case Against Spiritual Agoraphobia.’

Collective fictions matter, writes Marilynne Robinson*, because they have ‘the profoundest influence on what we know and see and understand’ (77). They matter because collective narratives determine, in greater and lesser ways, the expanse and expandability of our imaginations, of our hearts.

These are things that should have a place in our imaginations: the value of life; suffering as part of life (for everyone); the guarantee of change and the assurance of death. These constitute the very bones of Reality. Questions that are always in the process of being worked out include things like: what are the boundaries between the individual and society? What is the common good? (Is coherence on this question possible?) For whom does public discourse exist? (Who is speaking and who is silent and why?) How are we to judge what is significant? Authentic?

If we have not (metaphorically) gone to sleep (disavowing of the power we do hold; or, trying to escape from personal responsibility, or, perhaps, attempting to create a space apart to envision something else), many have allowed fear a foothold. Fear in the collective narrative seems to ‘have something like an organic life, in the way [it] invades experience and transforms it to the uses of [its] own survival.’ Robinson’s insight is prophetic:

‘When they make fear the key to interpretation of history and experience . . . nothing contains a greater potential for releasing all the varieties of destruction.’ (78)

We have given our collective fictions the status of Reality and this spectre can be seen haunting election cycles and legislation. Who can argue with the fact that it is often it appears to be ‘a work of grim and minor imagination’, ‘such a poor contrivance that we would not believe in it for a minute if we did not want to . . . .’ (77). And we must wonder: Why do we play so small?

We play small because we are, in Robinson’s view, ‘spiritual agoraphobes’ (86). To counter this phobia a number of remedies are offered (elegantly, of course, and not in the brevity I will present them below.)


Wake up & own & use your power to act for good. We are living in a complex and interdependent world. Acts are shaped by beliefs, and acts demonstrate beliefs more reliably than talk does. Do good. Do good any way and anyway.

Be reasonable. ‘We are not taking responsibility for keeping ourselves reasonable, individually or collectively — we no longer admire or reward reasonableness because it has lost its place in our imagination’ (78). Think slowly and well.

Give. Hone your skills in humanity. Give more. ’It is because we hope to acquire rather than to achieve … to receive rather than to give … that the good we imagine can truly be taken from our hands’ (85).

Be open to judgment. ‘What if, in important numbers, we believe there is a God who is mysterious and demanding, with whom one is not easily at peace? What if we believe there will be a reckoning?’ When people stopped believing this ‘we adopted this very small view of ourselves and others, as consumers and patients and members of interest groups . . .'(86). Adopting narrow and intense fictions, which both comfort and distract us, reveals that we have forgotten the seriousness of the gift and the call of being large-hearted humans.

Cultivate a compassionate imagination. (Courtney Martin puts it well, here.)

* See, Marilynne Robinson’s “Facing Reality” from the collection entitled The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought. (1998).

2 thoughts on “Collective Fictions

    • It’s a great essay that I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. I had all sorts of lights going on when I did. Seems so apposite for these times. (Maybe, in truth, for all times? We tend to think no one’s had the times we’ve had, and it is humbling to be reminded this is not quite so…).


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