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.
How can you not love mercy — kindness, compassion, forgiveness? It’s like not loving dessert, or cheese.
Where, then, do I turn in these increasingly frightening days? Where do I look for answers when I’m afraid, or confused, or numb? To an elegant Japanese sage? A dream-dancing Sioux grandmother with a tinkling laugh? No. More often than not, the North Star that guides me through the darkness is the Old Testament prophet Micah. He must have looked like a complete stoner or a Game of Thrones extra, and smelled like a goat, yet nearly 3,000 years ago, he spoke the words that often remind me of my path and purpose: “What doth God require of thee but to do justice and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”
Oh, is that all? Justice, mercy and humility? That’s nice. Right off the bat I can tell you that “walk humbly with thy God” is not going to happen anytime soon, for me or my closest friends — Arrogance R Us. My humility can kick your humility’s butt. What Micah is talking about is grad-school curriculum, while, spiritually speaking, I remain in junior high school, superior and cringing at the same time. And “to do justice” may be a trick, since we all think we do this anyway. We think that if our values aren’t the correct ones, we would have other ones, which would then be the correct ones.
Otherwise, these words are both plainsong and sublime. How can you not love mercy — kindness, compassion, forgiveness? It’s like not loving dessert, or cheese. If nothing makes people happier than service, especially to the poor, why not tap into the model of the Buddha, Jesus or Wavy Gravy, the knowledge that if you do loving things, you’ll have loving feelings?
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 savior 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.
Mercy brings us to the miracle of apology, given and accepted, to unashamed humility when we have erred or forgotten.
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.
In many spiritual and wisdom paths, it is written that God created us to have company and to be God’s loving eyes and hands on earth. But in certain African Christian catechisms it says that God created us because He thought we would like it. This stops me in my tracks. We would like it?
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.
Yes, of course we like the friendly, warm or breathtaking parts of life. But it’s so hard for almost everyone here, the whole world over, let alone my own beloved. You cannot believe what the people I love most have lost this year. God thought we would like puberty, warfare and snakes? I could go on and on — senescence, global warming, Parkinson’s, spiders?
Yes, because in the words of Candi Staton’s great gospel song “Hallelujah Anyway.” Hallelujah that in spite of it all, there is love, there is singing, nature, laughing, mercy.
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 and generous heart, which is the greatest prize 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. Crisis, self-centered fear, and saving people were home for me, with a wet bar serving up adrenaline. The quiet, tranquil room of just being was boarded up. But love reaches out and reaches out and reaches out. It is staggering that it is always giving me another chance, another day, over and over and over.
We’ve tried almost suicidally for our whole lives to shake mercy from the boughs of the material world’s trees.
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.
My unloveliness, on the other hand, is always on tap, like draft beer — my boring self-obsession, pettiness and schadenfreude. Wearing my bad pair of glasses, I look around and see that I am surrounded by swine. How do you expect me to react? But God, in Her guise as Coyote Trickster, gooses me, and I accidentally let go. I take a break from being prickly and judgmental.
I stop, pull back, take a breath. The next thing I know, I let others go first, or see that perhaps now is not the time to demand an explanation or an apology. Against all odds, I’ll somehow stop the campaign for now. I start over. I’m able to keep the patient more patient. And I get me back. What’s the catch? The catch is that there is no catch. This is so subversive. All I have to do in order to begin again is to love mercy, if I am to believe nutty old Micah. Then creation begins to float by, each new day.
Excerpted from the new book Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy by Anne Lamott. Reprinted with permission from Riverhead Books, a division of PenguinRandom House LLC. © 2017 Anne Lamott.