Stephanie Phillips A former New Yorker by way of Alabama who now lives in Atlanta with her husband and their two young sons. She is a pediatric dentist by trade and contributing writer to The Wheelhouse Review and Mockingbird in addition to her own blog, Plans in Pencil. When not writing, fixing teeth, or raising the next generation of men, she enjoys running, cooking, reading, and watching way too much TV and Netflix.
As the 2016 presidential race gears up, I keep returning to the idea that each of us is in ensconced in our own narrative, living out a plotline of past, present, and future.
The way the plot plays out is never that simple, of course: stories collide, arcs veer off-track, characters show up uninvited. So when Donald Trump opens his billion-dollar mouth yet again, making remarks that I find offensive, riling up the populace, and garnering media coverage, somehow resulting in higher poll numbers, this political game, these houses of cards that rise and tumble daily, can feel overwhelming, complicated, and depressing. That is, until I remember that this political game is just an attempt to elevate some stories and reduce others—and that none of the stories presented to us in politics are the whole story.
I remember the man from a tiny town in Arkansas, and how he fueled his 1992 campaign with the tagline, “I still believe in a place called Hope.” I remember the idea of compassionate conservatism and not leaving any children behind. I remember hearing about change we could believe in and community organizing, about rogues and mavericks. These days there’s word of immigrant narratives, family dynasties, Socialist tendencies, surgical skills. A field full of resumes being battered into appealing stories. Meanwhile, as interns and volunteers and PR reps and consultants work on slogans and speeches that line up with these narratives, opposing teams scrutinize resumes for plot holes and weaknesses, looking for opportunities to reduce the stories from laudable tales to laughable sound bites.
Politics is a prepackaged, reduced-calorie dinner, and if we expect it to feed us full, then we are sitting at the wrong table. This is politics. It took me forever (okay, thirty-eight years) to figure out the bottom line. But what an unburdening!
But in the narrative that matters, in the story that holds us all in its redeeming grip, what is happening is the opposite of politics. I used to approach the Bible as a manual, a set of rules without any overarching theme other than “Do this and things will be okay.” Then I learned about grace, about how the Old Testament is completed by the New Testament, about how the story moves from the world of performance into the realm of redemption.
From performance to redemption—wouldn’t it be great if politics followed that trajectory?
Instead, a candidate reduces the people from an entire nation down to criminals with one comment, or redefines heroes with another. And it will get worse. Debates will feature insults, commercials will sling mud, entire careers will be mocked, and people will be transformed into caricatures. As the campaign season unfolds, stories will be turned into sound bites, and it will be tempting to join in, just like we did on the playground as children, to reduce the other candidate’s story while proclaiming that of our own candidate. It will be tempting to mire ourselves in the messy games whose outcomes determine the running of this nation—games that, consequently, seem to carry ultimate import.
They don’t. And therein lies the motivation and model for our response.
As a believer in a power higher than a government, as someone who is subject to both the law and the Law, and as someone who is, blessedly, a recipient of a grace that transcends all of those things, I am in a unique position to observe politics with a mix of involvement and detachment. I am free to care without caring too much; I am invited to take part in the political process while knowing I can survive any outcome. My well-being is not dependent on what goes on in the halls of Congress, or the Oval Office, or the chambers of the Supreme Court. My well-being has already been decided—not on Capitol Hill, but on another hill.
This frees me to vote with hope, to critique with civility, to distrust partial stories, and to tell whole ones myself. No political opponent can condemn me and no political victory can save me. Condemnation was absorbed at the cross; victory was declared there. This is the story that decides my fate, and its wholeness is my true freedom.