Mercy Me: Having Compassion for Yourself

Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Rev. Ann Marie’s video recording of this reflection.

Your Touchstones Journal for this month should have arrived in your email box. It my hope that you are reading it and engaging in your own spiritual exploration. This month our theme is Mercy.

In the lead article in this month’s journal, “mercy” is described as being implicit rather than explicit for us. We UUs don’t often use the word mercy, but its meaning is certainly there in our Second Principle. As the introductory article says, mercy takes up the space between equity and compassion. In other words, mercy goes beyond our push do justice, to promote equity, and moves us toward what revolutionary love looks like.

Another quote in a different article says, “Mercy is what lets us drop the ‘tribal masks of our division.'”

In Universalist terms, mercy is the pathway to the hoped-for kinship of all beings.

I share this reflection called “Opening the Door of Mercy” by Karin Round to help you envision not only what mercy is, but also to give you some idea of what it takes to act with mercy.

One afternoon a couple of summers ago, just as the sky was darkening, a woman I didn’t know stood sagging on our threshold, holding the screen door open. I saw the silhouette of her head through the window.

No, she answered me, she was not all right. She didn’t feel well at all. So, I wondered, what was I supposed to do now?

This moment of decision had happened to me before. For almost nineteen years, we’ve lived here at the foot of a highway exit ramp. Our address is blandly suburban, but the highway often leads exhausted cars onto our curb. Lately cell phones have diminished the flow, but we’ve met many people in distress. More diverse than our own community, these travelers have all asked for little things, such as the phone, a glass of water, or simply directions. All have been strangers to me.

Ours is a cynical, suspicious time. Conventional wisdom advises that to act as a good Samaritan is to be naive and risk terrible consequences….

I believe repeatedly rejecting others who need help endangers me, too. I’d rather risk my physical safety than my peace of mind. I’d rather live my life acting out of mercy than save it by living in fear and hostility.

So here where we live on that afternoon one summer when the woman was sinking like the sun on my front porch, I made my choice.

I opened the door.

Karin Round, from “Opening the Door of Mercy,” as heard on The Bob Edwards Show, September 10, 2010

There are a lot of stories like this. Stories about seemingly “normal” people who go out of their way to extend mercy, who open the door, who trade their safety for peace of mind. There are stories on the TV news and on social media about enterprising children who see a need and go to extraordinary measures to meet that need, raising incredible amounts of funds, or raising consciousness about some lack many hadn’t previously been aware of, and now not only are aware of but are filling.

What is required for a person to act with mercy? Some say empathy is necessary. One has to see the plight of another person as their own. What ails another could ail me. What has happened to you could happen to me, therefore I will act with mercy, as I wouldn’t want to be left alone if I were in your circumstances. Acting with mercy requires acknowledging the bonds of kinship and acting as if all are one family.

That is not as easy as it sounds.

Others point out that one must have power to be merciful (not just the means), but also have an appreciation for the power an act of mercy holds to change another person’s life, to change your life.

I wonder, though, when folks make the choice to be merciful, if they are conscious of their power.

Mercy certainly is in that space between fairness and love, the space between keeping the scales of justice level (equitable) and allowing the power of compassion-that-heals to take over.

I believe that when we open the doors of our hearts, we all have the power we need.

The problem is that we don’t respond with mercy, but with our thinking, thinking of justice as retribution. If you commit a bad act, then you must pay, you must serve your time. Justice becomes an eye for an eye, an if/then proposition. Justice is viewed not only as law, but ORDER. Setting things back to order. Or redistributing equity, but for the purpose of order. Through the thinking of ORDER, if you get caught in a bad circumstance, someone or something is at fault and must pay.

MERCY operates differently, goes beyond the if/then ORDERING impulse of justice. Rather than appealing to law and order to make things right again, the appeal is to the heart, to compassion for a beloved member of the family.

The only rule is the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Showing mercy isn’t about restoring order. It is—and this is important—it is about upending the expected consequences so that the cycle of injustices and the “eye for an eye” punishments end.

They end so something new is possible.

Acting with mercy not only requires an open heart and empathy for oneself and others; it requires a revolutionary vision of what can be, that is different from what is. That is the power of mercy. It is the impetus behind truth and reconciliation efforts. A vision of something different that can be. Honesty about wrongs done is imperative, honesty about oppressive systems is imperative, and so is a compassionate, merciful response to persons that allows change. A vision of the beloved community that includes everyone, a way for honesty/truth-telling to be lifted up, and a pathway for mercy to make it possible for everyone to choose to open the door of compassion.

Compassion allows the power of forgiveness to do its work. Forgiveness releases the endless circle of eye for an eye retribution. No longer trapped by the continual righting of wrongs, mercy stops the cycle of retribution, allowing a reprieve, a new beginning.

How does one take this understanding of mercy and apply it to oneself?

How does one develop and sustain compassion for oneself?

First, it is important to be honest, truthful about the impossible circumstance you may be trapped in. To become intimately familiar with the seemingly endless cycle of if/then. To speak up, to reach out. To ask for help.

In the story I started with, the traveler came to the door; she asked for help.

We all need to hear validation. For someone to hear us. To know that we are seen.

Have you heard of Mother Teresa? She was a Catholic sister in Calcutta who founded the Missionaries of Charity. She started in 1950, and some 60 years later her organization had over 4500 nuns active in 133 countries. The sisters managed homes for people dying of HIV/AIDS, leprosy, and tuberculosis. They ran soup kitchens, dispensed medicines, and ran mobile clinics, children’s and family counseling programs, orphanages, and schools. The sisters of the Missionaries of Charity took vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, and they professed a fourth vow—to give “wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor.”

Mother Teresa died in 1997. She was lifted to sainthood by the Catholic Church nearly 20 years later in 2016 because of her many acts of mercy. That is validation! But for her it may have come too late.

You may also recall that after her death, Mother Teresa’s private letters to her spiritual advisors and her journals were published, although her wish was for them to have been burned. Through her own words, it became widely known that she spent many decades dismayed that she, who had once as a young woman felt close to God, no longer felt his presence. For 50 years, except for a brief period, she felt totally alone in her spiritual life. She desperately wanted validation. She wanted affirmation from God that she was doing what he would have wanted her to do.

But in her prayer life, God was silent. Her letters and journals described her agony that there was no sign at all of God’s presence. When her private letters and journals were made public, people were shocked. They were troubled and disturbed that she, the model of mercy, had no peace, no sense of communion, received no validation for her great acts of service to the poor and the outcast from the God she was hoping to please.

I remember some Unitarian Universalists responding that not only was it wrong for her privacy to be violated, but that the anguish she felt for so many years was heartbreaking.

We all want validation. We may not receive it. We may not know that we are a saint in the minds of those for whom we open the door.

Mother Teresa never stopped showing mercy to those who came to her.

We want to know that what we choose to do that is hard, yet feels like the right thing, is acknowledged in the sight of those who matter. That is what this community is for. To be merciful to those in need, and to offer validation to each other and to those in need. To see each other as the saints we are, and to see that we are all in need.

Have you read the New York Times series on mothering during the pandemic? There are so many working mothers with children at home who are under immense pressure: parenting, teaching, and trying to secure the financial resources they need for their families.

The articles include the shocking statistics about the toll the pandemic is taking on mothers and children.

Almost 1 million mothers have left the workforce — with Black mothers, Hispanic mothers and single mothers among the hardest hit. Almost one in four children experienced food insecurity in 2020, which is intimately related to the loss of maternal income. And more than three quarters of parents with children ages 8 to 12 say the uncertainty around the current school year is causing them stress. Despite these alarm bells clanging, signaling a financial and emotional disaster among America’s mothers, who are doing most of the increased amount of child care and domestic work during this pandemic, the cultural and policy response enacted at this point has been nearly nonexistent. The pandemic has touched every group of Americans, and millions are suffering, hungry and grieving. But many mothers in particular get no space or time to recover.

Jessica Grose, from “America’s Mothers Are in Crisis,” The New York Times, February 4, 2021.

In the story I told earlier about the slumping stranger at the door, we don’t hear what happened after the homeowner opens the door. But we know that the reason the person inside opened the door was for her own peace of mind. That was her “reward”: she received what validated the risk she took. She made her choice, and because she had made that same choice so many times before and knew of her own reward, she kept on showing mercy as Mother Teresa did.

Seek equity for all. Know and act as if we are one family. Circumstances that trap any individual in an endless cycle of suffering trap us all. We are the hands of mercy. We are the heart of compassion. We are here to forgive and release those imprisoned, trapped.

Keep giving as the mothers suffering from too much responsibility are, doing their best to provide mercy to their families.

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