Local View: Are we losing our grasp of what's true, right, needed?

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The Rev. David Tryggestad

Unlikely as it seems, celebrated author Toni Morrison, winner of both the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes for literature, once said that all her novels have happy endings. Her one criterion: “All my characters learn something about themselves.”

I sometimes wonder if we are living in a novel, but I doubt anyone could make this up. Indeed, we have learned something about ourselves — though we might wonder how happy the ending. And there seems to be no ending in sight.

In light of what we know now, many of us were living in an illusion at the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States in 2008. Naïve as we were, we imagined we had entered a new and promising chapter of American history, where the lofty promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were afforded equally to all and where the conclusion of the Pledge of Allegiance uttered by schoolchildren across the country — “with liberty and justice for all” — didn’t need the asterisk: “for some more than others.” We embraced the welcoming words of the Statue of Liberty, promising safety and opportunity to those seeking refuge among us.

The midterm elections of 2010 notwithstanding, our illusion of having arrived was solidly affirmed in the election of 2012.

The election of 2016 sent shockwaves to millions across the country, and the ensuing four years have not only given validation to our fears of four years ago but have ushered in a resounding repudiation of the illusion so many of us imagined our “reality” to be.


We have just now come through an election of historic proportions, but it would be foolish for any of us to assume the outcome is a repudiation of the repudiation of 2016, as much as millions of us would like it to be.

I expect most historians would consider the results of our recent election convincing and conclusive, but that would require what has been a foundational principle of our democracy: confidence in the integrity of our elections. Sadly, tragically, that confidence has been deliberately and systematically sabotaged by our leaders in Washington, D.C. And those in positions of power to challenge this dismantling of our trust seem to be nothing more than obsequious sycophants.

How do we know what is true?

Toni Morrison, in her last novel, “God Help the Child,” offers a path through this great cloud of unknowing (there are other words) that engulfs us as a nation. Booker, the male protagonist, grew up in a large family with a Saturday-morning ritual around the breakfast table, where the parents posited a question to each of the children: “What have you learned that is true, and how do you know?” Good questions.

After the 2008 election, Morrison was asked, “If you were going to give a lecture, and it might, in fact, be your last lecture … what would you want to say to us?” She replied, “I think I would talk about how hard it is and how necessary it is for us to become and to remain human. That means a lot. It means not giving into the comic-book version of who we are. … We know, deep down, what’s right and what is true and what is needed. We have to get there. We just have to.”

Toni Morrison died in August of 2019. I wonder if she would still hold to her optimistic assertion that we know, deep down, what’s right and what is true and what is needed. I used to think so. Now I’m not so sure.

The Rev. David Tryggestad of Duluth is a retired pastor and a regular contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page.

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