Friends, I feel so happy and strong. My life is blessed in ways too numerous to count. I say this, not to brag, but to be clear that this is where I stand: in peace and gratitude.
It is true, though, that life can be hard, full of challenges that we aren’t certain we have the strength or inner resources to weather. Illness, poverty, loneliness (among other things) may show up in our lives in big ways or small, and they also show up in the lives of those all around us. Sometimes we know what challenges another faces, sometimes we are unaware until we visit a friend and find her crying, or a note goes up on the bulletin board at the gym about a member’s family in need of our generosity.
Sometimes, I am closed to the suffering of others. Caught up in the details of my own life, focused on my own hurts or struggles. It happens to most of us. Other times, I am open and feel overwhelmed by concern and a desire to help. Often, it feels like there is so little of substance I can do.
A few years ago, I participated in a book discussion group at work, sponsored by our Campus Ministry department. I can’t remember the name of the book, but the theme was mercy. The author(s) used a working definition of mercy that went something like this: “to enter fully into the chaos of another’s life”. I clearly remember saying, in the ensuing discussion, that I didn’t know whether I wanted to do that – entering fully into someone else’s chaos sounds not the least appealing, especially if you have your own chaos.
We are all so good at allowing ourselves to intellectually grasp what another person might be going through. We donate canned goods, drop money in the red bucket, participate on boards and go to fundraisers. These are all good things to do, but we can so often do them without actually engaging with someone in pain. Entering into someone else’s chaos demands the engagement of our hearts, not just our minds. That is so much more difficult, and it can really be scary.
A while ago, I participated in a one-day service project to deliver Meals On Wheels. My experience was different from that of the others who participated that day – it just so happened that my route included some particularly grim experiences. I haven’t been able to go back, though I was happy to donate the proceeds of my hunger challenge that year to that program. So maybe that was too much chaos, way too fast.
But when the people that I know and interact with daily are suffering, entering into their chaos means, first, walking beside them so they know I am there. I’m pretty sure I can do that.
What I don’t want to do is stand in this place of peace and gratitude, happiness and strength, and just watch the suffering flow by. Nor do I want to blunder in and try to fix everything. Neither of these approaches serve in the long run. My old friend (and by friend, I mean author I deeply admire), Parker Palmer, espouses a form of community which holds each person sacred. This is how I hope to express the quality of mercy in my life, and I think it’s a fitting end to this reflection. He says:“The key to this form of community involves holding a paradox – the paradox of having relationships in which we protect each other’s aloneness. We must come together in ways that respect the solitude of the soul, that avoid the unconscious violence we do when we try to save each other, that evoke our capacity to hold another life without dishonoring its mystery, never trying to coerce the other into meeting our own needs.”