The Quality of Mercy

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.

And yet.

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.”
 

When compassion fails

One night recently, I was at a social gathering at a public venue, when my friend said, “Hey, Jen, did you recognize the guy who just served you at the counter? It’s your favorite student of all time!” I had not, in fact, recognized the man in question. Regardless, he is someone I will never forget: the only student I’ve ever worked with for whom my loathing and anger was so complete that absolutely no compassion existed in my heart for him. None. He was a liar, abusive to others, incapable of considering anyone else’s feelings, a bully, and – I felt sure – a sociopath. In all honesty, the only student I’ve ever claimed to hate.

Years have passed since he was a student. In the intervening time, whenever his name was mentioned, I’ve felt a residue of the negative feelings he inspired in me. Former students often ask, “Was I the worst student you’ve ever had?!”, and my answer is always, “Not even close,” because this other guy so clearly owns that label. So, when we were once again in the same room, I watched him surreptitiously. And was surprised to feel…nothing.

On one hand, it was good to know that the lingering feelings of rancor in my heart were no longer an active emotion. Rather, they were the ephemera left by long-remembered experience. On the other hand, it allowed me to think: what would our interactions have been had I attempted to express compassion for this young man when he was a student? Is it possible that one or both of us would be different people today had I been able to find empathy – something that I’ve been able to offer to most people with whom I interact – in my heart for him?

The easy answer is no. Nothing would have been different, because he was determined to act out in the aggressive manner he did. Compassion would have been laughed at, seen as weakness to be exploited. Indeed, I watched that happen with others who approached him offering friendship or care.

The much harder to accept answer, the one I reluctantly come to each time I parse it, is yes. I don’t know, and will never be able to say, whether compassion from me would have had a positive effect on him. But I know in my heart it would have positively affected me. It is so easy to slap a label (sociopath, for example) on someone and call your responsibilities toward that person done. I was careful to fulfill my professional responsibilities with regard to this student, and I tracked it all in reports and letters to him and to my supervisor. But I know I made a choice to forego my responsibility as a fellow human being out of anger and dislike. The fact that my feelings were activated by my care for those suffering from his actions was how I justified my choice. In hindsight, I know that is simply a way to let myself off the hook.

Why am I sharing this? The very day I saw my former student, was the day I posted on this blog that “love’s the only house big enough for all the pain in this world,” (lyrics from a Martina McBride song), and expressed my gratitude for compassion offered to me by friends and perfect strangers alike. It was not lost on me, as I sat looking at this stranger I had once interacted with, that I had not offered him as good as I’ve gotten. Mercy and compassion allow us to give back to the world some of the good we’ve been given. It isn’t supposed to just be offered to those who’ve granted it to us, a kind of karmic tit-for-tat. If I hope to add to the atmosphere of good in this world, and I do, the only way is to bring good where none previously existed. To offer compassion in response to aggression or apathy. To offer love when hatred has been put on the table.

Am I beating myself up over mistakes I made much earlier in my life? Not really. I’ve made so many, even I am aware this is just one of them. I can’t go back and change how those interactions played out. But I can learn a lesson when one slaps me in the face (yep, pretty much an apt description of my academic experiences, too!). I share it here, not because I grew up Catholic and have a need for public confession. Rather, I hope that by sharing what I’ve learned, I will hold myself accountable to practice my life accordingly. When compassion fails, my ability to be my best self fails. So does my hope to help create a better world.

Respectful Dissent

This morning I was inspired by remarks made by Dr. Maryanne Stevens, President of the College of St. Mary in Omaha, Nebraska. Dr. Stevens’ comments were the final remarks on a weekend retreat exploring the theme of what it means to be a Mercy college or university (for more information on Mercy institutions of higher education, please check out the Conference for Mercy Higher Education website. I believe Dr. Stevens’ remarks will eventually be posted there.)

I cannot do justice to Dr. Stevens’ remarks by attempting to paraphrase them here. However, I do want to share my thoughts regarding one concept introduced this morning: respectful dissent. Respectful dissent, according to Dr. Stevens, involves first listening with an open heart and mind. Then, we must turn inward and reflect upon what we have heard, before determining our response. Only after deep reflection, if we feel called to dissent, by virtue of our membership in a community we would look for ways to do so respectfully. Within the context of Dr. Stevens’ remarks, the community under discussion was the Catholic Church. She was able to offer several examples of respectful dissent within that faith community.

As I’ve thought about this concept throughout the day, I see that it has application for many areas of my life, including but not limited to my rocky relationship with Catholicism. In the workplace, as we struggle to define our roles and to intentionally create policies and programs which reflect our mission and values. In our civic and political engagements, as we strive to resolve difficult and contentious differences in our visions for the society in which we live. In our families, where we hope to create safe and trusting environments which feed our souls and allow us a safe place to land if we fall in life.

We live in a world which appears to have accepted wholeheartedly an adversarial model of disagreement, with a concomitant style of discourse which espouses confrontation and disrespect for those with differing views. We spend our energy shouting each other down, or worse shooting each other down. Respectful dissent would differ in that the process would include dialogue: both deep listening and deep speaking (from the center of ourselves, rather than from the surface, our egos). Its end goal would be lasting and transformative change, as opposed to declaring the loudest voice “the winner” and disenfranchising “the loser”.

 Are there situations in which it would be inappropriate, or not be applicable, to engage in respectful dissent? I don’t know, however, I am doubtful that those who dissent from men like Moammar Gadhafi would be successfully able to take this approach. On a more personal level, do I know what it would look like if I attempted to bring it as a personal response into my daily life? Not really. But I suspect that if I am able to engage more often in respectful dissent, it will result in fewer embarrassing reflections on my hot-headed over-reactions, as well as the need for fewer apologies for steamrolling over other’s opinions. And I think I would like those changes quite a lot.