“. . . [F]or the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
This provocative ending to George Eliot’s Middlemarch has an unlikely application, one which became apparent when I first entered into a conversation that began with the statement, “I don’t vote.” While Eliot is reflecting on the heroine of the story and not on voting, this idea of “unhistoric acts” and “unvisited tombs” speaks peculiarly to such a conversation.
While the cost of voting increasingly outweighs its nearly insignificant benefit, can we assume, contrary to Eliot, that insignificance equals futility? For this reason many discouraged voters choose not to vote. But is this equation wise? Should efficiency and optimization become the rubric for what we choose to do or not do? This choice impacts not just the political sphere, but the “growing good of the world” and, furthermore, the posture of our hearts.
And so we stumble upon a conundrum: are we called to do something if and only if it is significant? “Significance” implies a weightiness and a quantifiable impact. Is a quantifiable impact the sole justification for voting? Or could the opposite be true? Maybe we are supposed to do such things as are not significant, are not consequential, but fitting. “Fitting” implies that a thing is suitable, that it demonstrates consonance and harmony with its nature, context, and values. It is what seems becoming and right, regardless of consequence, and it is cultivated by an awareness of the relation of one thing to another.
This ‘relational thinking’ is spoken of by the Stoic Marcus Aurelius, known for the practical wisdom and civic virtue that pervade his Meditations: “This thou must always bear in mind, what is the nature of the whole, and what is my nature, and how is this related to that, and what kind of a part is of what kind of a whole.” Thus, when we ask if we should do a particular act, what we are often asking is, “Is this act becoming to that of which it is part?” It is this awareness which is the basis of standards and decorum, propriety and value.
Though not infallible, we must discern what is fitting and suitable in order to determine the rightness of a thing. Is it fitting for a teacher to disregard learning or a pastor to disregard worship or a parent to disregard relationship? These things are components of the very position. In the same way, is it fitting for a citizen to disregard voting? There is a fittingness—a reverencing of one’s office, one’s part in the whole—in the act of voting, a renewing and remembering of our role of living in the land where we have been placed.
If voting is fitting, then, should we vote merely because it is fitting? Is that enough? Does its propriety alone excuse the lack of significance? Is lack of significance something to be excused? I believe that, on the contrary, the very lack of significance lends worth to the insignificant act.
Insignificance is not inherently good, yet when we attend to that which is fitting though it has no quantifiable impact, we find a spiritual service. We discover a reality where the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor in spirit, where the meek inherit the earth, where the hungry and the thirsty are truly filled. This reality gives dignity and meaning to that which, in the eyes of a fallen world, is seemingly insignificant. To the world, it wasn’t significant for the widow to give her two mites, but it was fitting. It wasn’t significant for Mary to anoint Jesus, but it was fitting. It wasn’t significant for the boy to offer his five loaves and two fish, but it was fitting. It wasn’t significant for David to dance in the streets, but it was fitting. We act, not because we’re convinced of the significance of the act itself, but because we are convinced of the significance of acting.
Moreover, to allow the perceived significance of an action to determine whether one performs it is to assume an omniscience that ultimately rules out faith. When our measure of significance is based on apparent consequence, we separate ourselves from what Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in Letters and Papers from Prison, calls “worldliness” and characterizes as the posture of faith:
. . . it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. By this worldliness, I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes, and failures. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world. That, I think, is faith.
We may separate ourselves from the duties, problems, successes, and failures around us when they seem insignificant; we may distance ourselves from this worldliness, these acts of faith, when there is no apparent positive consequence. But when we have come to that point, the scale has reversed, and the cost lies with the significant and the benefit with the insignificant. The insignificant act which previously seemed more costly is now the benefit found in a posture of faith, while the abstinence from an insignificant act which previously seemed more beneficial is the costly loss of a pivotal piece in taking seriously the sufferings of God in the world. If we refrain from acting solely because we deem an action to be inconsequential, we have lost a fundamental component in living a humble, holy life.
There may be valid reasons for not casting a vote; but if the reason is because a vote is comparatively useless, consider what Alexander Pope suggests in these lines from Essay on Man:
In human works, though labored on with pain,
A thousand movements scarce one purpose gain;
In God’s, one single can its end produce;
Yet serves to second, too, some other use.
So man, who here sees principal alone,
Perhaps acts second to some sphere unknown,
Touches some wheel, or verges to some goal;
‘Tis but a part we see, and not a whole.
These “human works, though labored on with pain,” which may seem of no consequence, may be producing an end in “some sphere unknown.” When we accept the comparatively insignificant acts—these acts of faith—we are working for ourselves a “far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory,” for “tis but a part we see, and not a whole.”