When we manage a flash of mercy for someone we don’t like – including ourselves – we experience a great spiritual moment, says writer Anne Lamott.
There are times in our lives – scary, unsettling times – when we know that we need help or answers but we’re not sure what kind, or even what the problem or question is. We look and look, tearing apart our lives like we’re searching for car keys in our couch, and we come up empty-handed. Then when we’re doing something stupid, like staring at the dog’s mismatched paws, we stumble across what we needed to find. Or even better, it finds us. It wasn’t what we were looking or hoping for, which was usually advice, approval, an advantage, safety or relief from pain. I was raised to seek or achieve them, but like everyone, I realized at some point that they do not bring lasting peace, relief or uplift. This does not seem fair, after a lifetime spent in their pursuit. Where, then, do I turn in these increasingly frightening days? Where do I look for answers when I’m afraid, or confused, or numb? Micah 6:8 said, “And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God”.
Just to hear the words “mercy” or “merciful” can transform the whole day, because as the old saying goes, the soul rejoices in hearing what it already knows. Something lights up in me. We know mercy is always our salvation – as we age, as our grandchildren go down the same dark streets that called to their parents, as the ice caps melt. But I wish it was something else. I wish it was being able to figure things out, at which I am very good, or to assign blame, at which I am better, or to convince people of the rightness of my ideas. I wish it was a political saviour who believes the same things I believe, who possesses the force of great moral strength that (of course) agrees with my own deepest values. But no, hope of renewal and restoration is found in the merciful fibrillating heart of the world. Maybe it would be helpful to ask what we mean when we speak or dream of mercy. Here, off the top of my head, in no particular order, are several things of which I am fairly sure.
Mercy is radical kindness. Mercy means offering or being offered aid in desperate straits. Mercy is not deserved. It involves absolving the unabsolvable, forgiving the unforgivable. Mercy brings us to the miracle of apology, given and accepted, to unashamed humility when we have erred or forgotten. Charge it to our heads and not our hearts, as the elders in black churches have long said. Mercy, grace, forgiveness and compassion are synonyms, and the approaches we might consider taking when facing a great big mess, especially the great big mess of ourselves – our arrogance, greed, poverty, disease, prejudice. It includes everything out there that just makes us sick and makes us want to turn away, the idea of accepting life as it presents itself and doing goodness anyway, the belief that love and caring are marbled even into the worst life has to offer.
Mercy means that we soften ever so slightly, so that we don’t have to condemn others for being total shits, although they may be that. (Okay: are.) If I do so, it makes me one. As Father Ed Dowling said, sometimes heaven is just a new pair of glasses. When we put them on, we see the awful person, sometimes even ourselves, a bit more gently, and we are blessed in return. It seems, on the face of things, like a decent deal. Kindness toward others and radical kindness to ourselves buy us a shot at a warm heart, which is the greatest price of all. Do you want this, or do you want to be right? Well, can I get back to you on that? I want to want this softening, this surrender, this happiness. Can I get a partial credit for that?
The good news is that God has such low standards, and reaches out to those of us who are often not lovable and offers us a chance to come back in from the storm of drama and toxic thoughts. Augustine wrote, “Late have I loved you, o beauty ever ancient…. You were within me but I was outside.” The storm outside is just so much more enlivening, and for a writer, much better material. Plus, I can be a hero in my storm, which is where I found a sense of value as a child, as the tense little EMT in a damaged family.
When we manage a flash of mercy for someone we don’t like, especially a truly awful person, including ourselves, we experience a great spiritual moment, a new point of view that can make us gasp. It gives us the chance to rediscover something both old and original; the sweet child in us who, all evidence to the contrary, was not killed off, but just put in the drawer. I realize now how desperately, how grievously, I have needed the necessary mercy to experience self-respect. It is what a lot of us were so frantic for all along, and we never knew it. We’ve tried almost suicidally for our whole lives to shake it from the boughs of the material world’s trees. But it comes from within, from love, from the flow of the universe; from inside the cluttered drawer.
Excerpted from the new book – Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy by Anne Lamott.