“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.”
There are certain words — large, beautiful, buoyant words — weighed down by a heavy religious inheritance that make the nonreligious among us uneasy. Soul is one of them — a word whose secular redemption is more needed than ever. (Redemption, it occurs to me, is another — one which David Foster Wallace successfully secularized.)
But hardly any word is more unnerving yet more urgently needed today than mercy — a word seeped in scripture yet almost biologically encoded into human nature; a word deceptive in its seeming softness, for beneath its surface radiance lurks a dark core: the very concept of mercy only exists because of and as a counterpoint to our capacity for cruelty. Mercy is the conscious choice to be kind when one can be cruel — without cruelty, there is no mercy.
This is why the redemptive and rebellious practice of mercy is so immensely needed today, in a world that serves us evidence of cruelty daily, and its practice is what Anne Lamott sets out to reclaim in Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy (public library) — a slim, powerful book about the ways in which we harden against life and the ways in which we can soften through forgiveness, kindness, and all those splendors of spirit which, in denying others, we deny ourselves.
Lamott, the patron saint of our fallible humanity, writes:
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.
In a testament to how trauma muffles our senses and sensitivity, she considers our greatest stumbling block to mercy and forgiveness. Echoing the beautiful opening lines of Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Kindness” — “Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, / you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing” — Lamott writes:
We’re so often rattled by lingering effects of trauma and paralyzing fear.
At first glance, they seem inextricable. Trauma, which is sorted differently in the brain than memory, seeps out of us as warnings of worse to come. Our self-centered fears whisper at us all day: our fear of exposure, of death, and that we will lose those we love most, that we will lose whatever advantage we hold, whatever meager gains we’ve made. We live in terror that our butts will show and people will run from us, screaming.
But let’s say we believe that mercy and forgiveness are in fact foundational, innate, what we are grown from and can build on; also that they are hard to access because of these traumas and fears. What if we know that forgiveness and mercy are what heal and restore and define us, that they are the fragrance that the rose leaves on the heel that crushes it?
What makes Lamott’s writing so wonderful is that her deep and nuanced wisdom comes not from a preachy place but from intimate contact with her own unconcealed human imperfection, which she acknowledges with unselfconscious lucidity and, in the act of acknowledging it, alleviates our own self-consciousness about the myriad small-spirited, begrudging tendencies by which we fall so woefully short of our ideal selves.
Once again extending that supreme “me, too” gift of unjudgmental recognition, Lamott writes:
So why today is it absolutely all I can do to extend mercy to myself for wanting to nip an annoying relative’s heel like a river rat? Forget extending mercy to this relative, who has so messed with me and my son — she doesn’t even know she needs my mercy. She thinks she is fierce and superior, while I believe she secretly ate her first child. Horribly, she is perfectly fine. I’m the one who needs mercy — my mercy. The need for this, for my own motley mercy, underpinned most of my lifelong agitation, my separation from life itself.
I came here with a huge open heart, like a big, sweet dog, and I still have one. But some days the only thing that can cheer me up is something bad happening to someone I hate, preferably if it went viral and the photo of the person showed hair loss and perhaps the lifelong underuse of sunscreen. My heart still leaps to see this. I often recall the New Yorker cartoon of one dog saying to the other: “It’s not enough that we succeed. Cats must also fail.” This is the human condition.
Mercy, Lamott observes, can be difficult to conceive of, much less practice, in a world rife with “Rwanda, Nixon, ISIS, malaria, your father, and your wife’s god-awful sister, and what children did to you or your own kids in the playground.” And yet the musculature of mercy, she suggests, is what holds erect the skeleton of our humanity. She writes:
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.
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.
With an eye to a central ambivalence of the human condition — the same ambivalence that accounts for the fact that “we are never as kind as we want to be, but nothing outrages us more than people being unkind to us,” as psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor have memorably observed — Lamott writes:
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 problem is, I love to be, and so often am, right. It’s mood-altering, and it covers up a multitude of sins… I know justice and believing that you’re right depend on cold theological and legal arguments where frequently there is no oxygen, but honestly I don’t mind this. I learned to live in thin air as a small child.
Reflecting on the tumultuous and traumatic environment of her childhood home, she adds:
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.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Joan Didion’s abiding assertion that “character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs,” Lamott returns to mercy and its irrepressible resilience even in the most battered of spirits:
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.
Complement the thoroughly fantastic Hallelujah Anyway with Lamott on how perfectionism kills creativity, the greatest gift of friendship, how we endure with sanity in a crazy world, and how we keep ourselves small with people-pleasing, then revisit Ta-Nehisi Coates on choosing kindness over fear and Carl Sagan on meeting ignorance with compassion.
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