I misremember the words of the Shakespeare Sonnet because my book is back at the office: “Those who have power to hurt and yet do none….” It’s something very much like that, and this is the gist of what I want to speak of in terms of mercy.
The power to hurt
It is said blessed are the merciful, they shall receive mercy and so mercy is a force that can only be matched by its return–which should tip us off that it is tied to highest powers. It is both a giving and a withholding. We give love and we withhold judgment. We also withhold pity, sentimentality, and, most especially, the sense of our own superiority. Then: it is the state of love opposite of courtship. In courtship we plight our troth. We adore. In the state of mercy, we do not bend to serve, nor rise to condescend, but find the exact height at which relationship is eye to eye. So to have mercy on another is to level with him or her–to see them face to face. This is why I always thought of Chekhov as the great writer of mercy–because he did not distort, yet he had the power if he wished to fully destroy the other. So mercy is strength that is dispensed in “seeing” the other. “You have seen me brother, you have not turned away.” Thus mercy is deep and abiding witness wrought not of weakness, nor servility, but of a sort of leveling Isaiah implies when he says, “the mountains shall be laid low and the valleys raised.” It is a leveling that is based on power and yet does not seek to defend, attack, or defeat the other. In mercy, seeing, witnessing is everything. And so this is the ground of mercy. And so I know that at the heart of mercy lies a contradiction: power, enormous power that seeks with its whole heart, and mind and soul the equanimity of witness. And there are other qualities:
Charity is that love mercy carries as its chief defining action. The action of mercy is charitas–which, unlike many gifts, is just the right gift at the right moment. This means it is grace derived good works–not merely good works. It is the work of the Holy Spirit inside someone who has power to hurt and yet chooses, instead to bear witness to the other– to truly “see” them. Again, it has ties to the highest form of what the Greeks call Xenia–the right treatment of the other, the stranger, the recognition of the other’s hidden majesty. This gift raises both the giver and receiver to an almost divine height. It elevates the relational scope of all being. Nabakov speaks of such charity when he says that while he would commend a man who saved a child from a burning building, he would take off his hat and bow in great reverence to that man who went into the fire a second time to retrieve the child’s favorite doll. Why? Because that man is the poet inside us–the one who sees the true heart of the other, who does not merely attend to the material, but goes the extra mile that Jesus speaks of in his preaching. I encountered an example of this aspect of mercy in an essay by the writer, Natalie Kusz. In her essay “Vital Signs” which details a long stay in the hospital, she gives a brief account of a nurse who “sees” an injured child in just the way I am speaking of. Consider this the example of mercy and its action:
And overseeing us all was janine, a pink woman, young even to seven year old eyes, with yellow, cloudy hair that I touched when I could. She kept it long, parted in the middle, or pulled back in a ponytail like mine before the accident. My hair had been blond then and I felt sensitive now about the course brown stubble under my bandages. Once, on a thinking day, I told janine that if I had hair like hers, I would braid it and loop the pigtails around my ears. She wore it like that the next day and every day after for a month.
Janine truly “sees” the little girl who has been in a devastating accident. She instinctively knows the little girl’s crush on her, and she has power to ignore or hurt the girl, yet, not only is she responsive, but, as if with the supernatural eye of a divine being, she sees that her cloudy yellow hair is also the little girl’s–that they share this between them. Her act is the charitas of true mercy–which is power to hurt converted into powerful witness, and an act of love beyond the call of duty. it is the right gift at the right time, with the effortless gesture of grace.
Mercy is always Unprecedented
Because mercy is always particular to an act of witness it can not have precedent, What constitutes mercy at one moment, constitutes mere good manners, or formality at another. mercy is in the moment, of the moment, for the moment, and without a future so to speak. there is a reason for this: acts of mercy are forms of prophecy; they teach us what true justice could be, what true equality, and love, and witness could be. Mercy is both mystery and pedagogy: a mitzvah that creates mitzvah consciousness. Empathy must be taught through stories of mercy. As a child, going to mass, I heard about the woman taken in adultery, the prodigal son, the woman at the well, the good thief recognizing Jesus on the cross, the love of the enemy–over and over and over again. Because stories were always beautiful to me, I took them to heart, saw them as real events. Mercy was everywhere, waiting to be enacted. It ennobled my being, made me want to be someone on the right side of an issue. I was also wild, intense, easily hurt, and I hoped with my whole heart God would forgive me my wildness if I showed mercy to others. I figured that was my only chance. My heart is a wildheart and I cannot do the yoga, serenity, soft-voiced thing people seem to do so well these days. I suspect this niceness has more to do with middle class manners than mercy. I have seen vegetarians show little or no mercy to anyone who does not share their life style. Perhaps I am a strange man, but I feel just as endangered among nice academics as I do among street kids. In point of fact, I always felt more at home with street kids. There, in a world where nothing is polite or well structured or “nice,” mercy visits on a regular basis. I think of Fariha, the kid from Bangladesh who befriended Kajah Jackson, a tough, black girl from the projects who had her mother’s brains splattered on her clothes by her father. He murdered her mother in front of her. Kajah was more than depressed; she was destroyed–talked to no one, played with no one, did the one thing in the ghetto you can’t do: dressed poorly and did not “wash yo ass.” She had “stank” as one kid called it. Farihah was impeccably dressed, brilliant, popular, and had two loving parents, and yet she risked her popularity,her reputation, everything to befriend Kajah. She helped me reach Kajah when I worked with children who had lost their lives–their childhoods. When I asked Farihah why, she said, “I was not always popular, Mr. Joe. Like when 9/11 happened, I was not in the Arab section of town and the kids threw stones at me. They called me names. I was in fifth grade, and I tried to kill myself. My mom cried, and I remembered I didn’t just belong to myself. I belonged to her, too, and I would break her heart. When I saw Kajah, I just knew I should be her friend, and that I was just like her under everything. I took her to my house and my mother called her a dirty little project girl. ‘Why do you hang with such people?’ My mother said. I told her, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself mommy. Kaja is just like me.” It took a long time to see it, but now my mother wants to do Kaja’s hair, and buy her clothes. She wants her to be her daughter.’
This leads me to my final observation on mercy: Mercy, unlike good manners or social nicety, can exist in hell. It can exist in the worst situations. it goes deeper than all wounds. It retrieves the dead from Hades. It barters for our souls when we would sell them out. It is violent in the best sense. It sees and refuses to be blind, Without it, all the welfare programs, and systems, and reforms are useless. Mercy is the majesty of vision, and it is the only true power we have, the one we seem all too often unwilling to exercise.
A prayer to be merciful
Remove the scales from my eyes, oh Lord,
and the scales from my hands.
Replace them with the ferocity of sight,
with the hands by which I wield
no weapon and all grace. Have mercy
on me who is so unmerciful. Give me your love
your eyes, your hands, so that I might see
the stranger, and know you–at once
forever, without hesitation,
in all places high and low.