Today we begin a Year of Mercy in our church. And for some years now, I’ve been collecting (and occasionally concocting) aphorisms about anger and mercy. Mostly, that’s because I’m way too good at the one and not so much at the other. Getting angry feels so good on the way in, especially when it’s justified. Oh God, the sweet, sweet tang of righteous anger!
But then once you’re inside, it can be hard to get out. I can run into people I have not seen in decades, and the main thing I’ll remember about them is that I have some justification for being angry with them (which of course I can’t remember, but still!). And so my instinct will be to greet them with hostility.
It’s like a mousetrap, anger—righteousness is an amazing piece of cheese, but once you go to take that nibble, good luck getting out.
Maybe you’ve heard the saying, giving in to anger is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. (To which I reply, O.K., but what if we feed them the poison, too? Anger is so good for exciting one’s ingenuity.)
I’ve come up with a few variations of my own: Giving in to anger is like lighting yourself on fire and expecting to feel better.
Or it’s like lighting your apartment on fire and being surprised when other people also get hurt.
Or it’s like swallowing a tapeworm. It never stops wanting more; also, hello, now you’ve got a tapeworm.
The lie of anger is that it liberates us and isolates those who deserve punishment. The truth of anger is that it isolates us and liberates no one.
For those who like a literary analogy, consider this: Shakespeare never wrote a play about revenge or resentment that ended well. But he did write an awful lot of them where at the end everyone’s pushing up daisies.
Or put another way, things never smell better when they fester.
But here’s the thing—have you ever been in a situation where you feel pressured to forgive, and you’re just not there yet? For some, that’s the message of Christianity: get over yourself and let it go.
But as far as I can tell, you can’t forgive someone else by hating or hurting yourself. I mean, you can try, but in my experience it will only make you angrier.
Also, being angry can be an important step on the path to forgiveness. It’s like Virgil says to Dante at the gates to Hell—there’s no way out but through. Sometimes wounds have to bleed or they get infected. If you want to heal, usually you have to hurt.
And sometimes we just get stuck, and there’s no easy way of unstucking ourselves. We might like to be done with the whole thing, but we just can’t get there.
I was once talking to a confessor about that; I just couldn’t stop being angry about something that had happened. And he suggested, stop seeing yourself at the center of the equation. Think of mercy like a river of grace. Your job is not to be the river but to try not to get in its way.
You can’t stop being angry at someone yet? Fine. That happens. You’re probably doing the best you can. So for now, step aside and leave the forgiving up to God.
I don’t know if that makes any sense to anyone else, but it sure has meant a lot to me. There’s some things that are just plain hard to get over.
In various columns for America I’ve quoted Jim Keenan, S.J., a theologian at Boston College, who gave me this definition of mercy: “Mercy is entering into the chaos of another.” That is to say, it’s not about fixing someone else’s problems—which is often impossible, and let’s be honest, is our impulse less for their sake than because we’re feeling pretty uncomfortable with the mess. Deep within all of us lurks a controlling mother who always wants to tidy. “I’ll just spruce things up a bit, dear.”
No, mercy is often about agreeing to be present to the mess that is someone’s life, despite our discomfort. To just be with. It doesn’t sound like much, but boy, if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of such kindness, you know it’s actually an awful lot.
At the end of the day, the greatest mystery in the universe may be that God also loves jerks. Truly, if you’re looking for something to contemplate as we enter into this year of mercy, you could do a lot worse than that. (And if you come to realize that you, too, might be a member of that club, all the better. I’ve got platinum standing at this point myself.)
“Earth,” writes the great Anne Lamott, “is forgiveness school. You might as well start at the dinner table. That way, you can do the work in comfortable pants.” (By the way, Ms. Lamott’s memoir-essays “Traveling Mercies”, “Help, Thanks, Wow” and “Small Victories” are each great reads, and all about forgiveness and mercy.)
Or, put another way, as someone once told me, never forget that everyone you meet is struggling with a terrible burden. And “when all is said and done,” as Ram Dass writes, “we’re all just walking each other home.”