I spent much of the past month reading essays by Marilynne Robinson with a small group of first-year undergraduate students. By way of the essays in When I Was a Child I Read Books, we talked about Moses, John Calvin, Edgar Allan Poe, and Emily Dickinson; we explored questions of character, virtue, beauty, community, and the soul; and we worked hard—very, very hard at times—just to understand Robinson’s prose let alone to care about or enjoy her bold attachment for such long-dead and seemingly irrelevant things.
And yet, as Robinson says of her own early reading life, which was filled with books on Carthage, Constantinople, and the Cromwell revolution, “relevance was precisely not an issue” (85). Robinson describes reading as a way to roam meditatively and unassumingly through far-away stories, histories, experiences, and ideas, regardless of whether or not they were, in Robinson’s terms, “mine” or “not mine.” In fact, reading and meditating on the irrelevant became a way for Robinson to decenter herself, to dissolve herself, and to roam freely and joyfully away from herself and toward what might be called the “cosmic.”
My fellow readers—all young adults aged 18-20 in the early weeks of a college education—circled around the irrelevance of Robinson’s writing almost every time we met. Guided by Robinson’s circuitous sentences and consciousness-like organization, we explored far and wide. We read parts of the Deuteronomic Code, looking for the radical generosity Robinson finds in many Old Testament laws. We played several nineteenth-century hymns, listening for the “wondrous love” she hears in them. We examined Edgar Allan Poe’s long-forgotten prose poem Eureka, searching for the “dark gorgeousness” and unexpected accuracy that she applauds in that rarely-read cosmology.
Sometimes the irrelevance was energizing. We talked carefully about the value of irrelevant things, stepping into philosophical, theological, and cultural conversations, and the students tried their hardest to read and reread in the ways that I ask every student in every class. Read to understand. Read with generosity. Read with critique.
Other times the irrelevance was deflating. At least once each class, a student gasped some variation of the same frustrated plea: Why are we reading this? They were tired and disoriented, scrambling to follow and to care about long paragraphs about unfamiliar—and seemingly unknowable—things.
Still other times the irrelevance was relieving, and these were the most surprising times for all of us. I use the term “relieving” as a counterbalance to the intense pressure that so many young adults feel, including those gathered in this small seminar. They have grown up in the trenches of the “mine” with an often suffocating focus on the self. They have been invited to think about themselves, know themselves, express themselves, care for themselves, and push themselves. Sometimes this focus on the self comes from easily vilified things like social media and consumerism, but it also comes out of the best resources and practices of vocation formation: the Myers-Briggs, the Enneagram, career days, job shadowing, silent retreat, spiritual direction, and mentorship. The invitation into the self can be empowering, clarifying, and supportive, but it can also be, plainly put, too much. It can make even the most well-intentioned vocation programs into anxious and isolating experiences that feel like a barrage of rapid-fire, urgent, and oppressive questions answerable by the individual and the individual alone regardless of all the supportive structures around them: Who are you? Who do you want to be? What will you study? How will you serve? Why? When? Where?
With Robinson as our unlikely guide, we were able, in our own small way, to put ourselves aside and take a breath. We glimpsed the possibility of the irrelevant, and we quieted the barrage to raise a new question and a singular one: What does it mean to be human?
And what a question that is.
We talked about Darwin, Freud, Morrison, and Genesis, considering explanations in genetics, psychology, art, and religion, specifically the Imago Dei. And with both wisdom and naivete—that wonderful combination found in so many young adults—they made claims, raised questions, revised their claims, and raised new questions. By shifting from the individual to the whole, from the relevant to the irrelevant, from the “mine” to the “not mine”—by replacing the question “Who are you?” with the questions “Who are we?” and “Who can we be?”—we experienced a sense of community well beyond the walls of our classroom that relieved the isolation and the pressure for a few moments, which was profound.
If you pick up Robinson’s book, you might say that it is a ridiculous and ill-chosen text to put into the hands of first-year college students. And in some ways it is. This book was not written for them or about them in any kind of discernible sense. Robinson’s voice and her ideas are seemingly remote, removed, and irrelevant. Yet the book invites us to look up and out, to see the great human quest that has been and will be: “The meteoric passage of humankind through cosmic history has left a brilliant trail. Call it history, call it culture. We came from somewhere and we are tending somewhere, and the spectacle is glorious and portentous.” This might be one necessary way to think about and talk about vocation, not only as the place where “your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet,” to quote Frederick Buechner’s well-known description, but also as a shared, common, human calling into a “brilliant trail [. . .] tending somewhere.”
I thought of my students a few days ago as I listened to Ruth. J. Simmons’s 2023 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. Describing her first experiences of education, Simmons said, “I was incognizant of who I was as a human being and unaware of what promise that condition afforded me: access to the kind of unfettered learning that broadens our understanding of the world. I believe that the flowering of such knowledge invariably lifts our sights, bolsters our understanding of who we are, satisfies our curiosity, and, by enabling us to be more rounded and capacious as human beings, prepares us to be better stewards of a shared purpose.”
During these past weeks, my students and I have lifted our sights, and we have reached into the “shared purpose” of being human together, of “opening our hands wide,” as Robinson might say, of being good to each other and to the earth.
In seeking the irrelevant, we just might have found a little more of ourselves—together.
Kerry Hasler-Brooks is an associate professor of English at Messiah University, where she also serves as chair of the Language, Literature and Writing Department and the Gender Concerns Committee. Her essay “Antiracism as Vocational Practice: Reading with Alice Walker, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Edwidge Danticat” appears in Cultivating Vocation in Literary Studies, and her current project on imagination as part of vocational preparation is supported by a NetVUE Grant for Reframing the Institutional Saga.