Mercy beyond the Pale

“Ever let mercy outweigh all else in you. Let our compassion be a mirror where we may see in ourselves that likeness and that true image which belong to the Divine nature and Divine essence. A heart hard and unmerciful will never be pure.”
St. Isaac of Syria

For a long time now I’ve looked over the landscape of the world, this country, this city from the safety of my small, cramped office. Behind the glow of the laptop, I see the troubles that roll across the screen. Sometimes while scrolling a video will begin to play without my even having seen it embedded there on the website. If I am very lucky, the video begins with a commercial, something innocuous and annoying. It’s a heads up of sorts, an early warning system that soon the real content will follow. Generally, that content has nothing to do with the ads I’ve just heard about the latest technology that I don’t need, brand new fast cars I cannot afford or an improved version of some food I’ve heard of but haven’t yet tried.

This has been a hard week on a whole lot of levels. Death is strong in the news cycle, peering out from behind Facebook posts and Twitter feeds and blaring videos that come on the heels of advertisements asking which is the better brand of peanut butter. Choosy moms choose…

Life.

If we’re choosy, even if we’re not all moms, we ought to choose life, yes?

But death sells more books and newspapers and ad spaces both online and on satellite tv. And yet we need to hear about it, especially this and especially now. We need to see the videos when they come, and we need to listen close for the deeper implications for us all going forward.

I am an upper-middle-class white woman living in the United States of America, and I have a wide swath of privilege because of a couple of those designations. It is sewn into my skin color. It lulls me into a false sense of security. And it causes me to react with a kind of odd panic when I read stories about racial discrimination, particularly when it culminates in death. So this week has been weird and hard and far removed from my normal day to day. In the relative safety of my small cramped office, behind the glow of my laptop screen, I am safe here, hidden away. Why bother caring any further than that? Oh, sure, perhaps I’ll pray.

But I arrived at this persistent thought today while walking through my middle-class Chicago city neighborhood. It is not a clean and careful thought. It is not a fleeting, “what if” thought that came and went like the rainstorm last night. It is a thought that spoke softly starting at the edge of my heart and nudged itself further up, to my throat, to my brain. This thought suggested that unless I am grieved today, thoroughly and truly, I am lacking. Nothing will change. People die all the time, violence is all around us, we undervalue life at every turn. We live as if there are some of us who are disposable as if the loss of that life is of no consequence. I ought to be grieved today, thoroughly and truly.

As I sit and read the reports, the studies, the articles, as I watch the videos that begin to play despite the settings I keep adjusting on my phone and computer, I feel only disjointed, disconnected, numb. We ought to be made more connected through media and story and loss like this, no matter who is lost. Can I wish for that kind of grief? Should I pray for that grief with the knowledge that it may chip at my heart so often that there will be nothing left in the span of one year, one month, one week? If the only other choice is to harden my heart, then I am not sure it would be a heart worth bearing any longer. What sort of choice is that?

So I plead for mercy, “Lord, have mercy” all day and all night, and when I say it, I mean it. When I write it, when I repeat it to myself forty times while driving because I am at an absolute loss for any other words, I am sincere. But the pleas are not nearly enough. The plea for mercy is simply a reminder to keep that heart from hardening, through judgment and fear and despair. Our action is required, fueled by compassion and yes, driven by grief and loss, because those holes that are left in us when life is taken, especially through violence, ought to leave us grieving, thoroughly and truly. That grief is how we know that life, all life, is of value.

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