We played a game as kids called “Mercy” where we locked fingers, counted to three and then caused enough suffering to elicit the mercy call, which won the game. We twisted knuckles and bent back wrists. We played it mostly on the school bus, a place of forced confinement with not much to do and where real mercy struggled to gain traction. Mercy tends not to be doled out by kids in the presence of one adult who is concentrating attention out a window. I remember knowing that if I bobbed my head too much to the music playing in the seat behind me, I would get punched. The law of the jungle is not a merciful one.
So where do we find mercy, a quality almost universally praised? The sacred texts of Judaism, Islam and Christianity describe God this way, a pretty good indication of our regard for charity and forgiveness. God, though, at least in much of the Old Testament, dealt the mercy with a heavy hand. There was a lot of smiting, in the name of God and by the Big Fella himself. Mercy seemed to involve cutting the toes and thumbs off people who crossed you and maybe sometimes killing everybody’s first born to make a point.
Somewhere along the line, God softened a little. He didn’t get rid of rape or murder or child abuse, but apparently He became more forgiving, to the point that I was taught everyone had a last chance to repent after death. This amazed me. Why wouldn’t people just act like jerks their whole lives and then repent at the end? My young thought may suggest the reasons for school bus culture.
If God is supposed to be merciful, one could look to a presumed human link like the Pope. The popes, historically, also seemed to lack forgiveness. They had the luck of rising to power during the less-than-merciful Medieval period, of course, when the whole put-your-enemy’s-head-on-a-long-pike thing was big. But again, in a more contemporary reminder of Jesus’ “turn the other cheek” message, the pope of my childhood, John Paul II famously visited his would-be murderer in prison and forgave him.
The world was impressed. My father showed me pictures from Time Magazine of the Pope sitting quietly with his attacker in a small jail cell. Time Magazine! How hard was it, though, to forgive this crazy guy with the whole world watching? A great act, but a bit of a show, maybe. A photo opportunity.
Well below the Pope, at least dogmatically, the real heart of mercy works away with much less fanfare: nuns. My own mom was, for several years before she met my dad, a Sister of Mercy, a member of a Catholic order of nuns. Rather than overly strict or dreamy—just two common stereotypes—I found the nuns I met as a young person to be incredibly kind, forgiving, tough, and humble. They campaigned tirelessly for peace. They worked in obscure soup kitchens and shelters and church basements for countless others. They told you when you fucked up and they continued to love. They seemed a lot like Jesus.
Most of us don’t have the resources to practice this sort of mercy. We’ve chosen lives that throttle the mercy out of us. Let alone not having time for charitable acts, it’s a struggle to practice mercy at all. And vengeance satisfies in a nasty way. It feels good, like eating all the baklava your wife brought back from a baby shower—not stealing a piece or two, but the ugliness of eating every single last fucking one of those flakysweet bits of sin. It is a numbing joy, shockingly enjoyable in action, followed by a steady decrease in value, followed very possibly by regret.
For most of us, mercy exists most truly in our small daily lives. Although a little research has unearthed a possibly-fabulous new product called “Mercy” that bills itself as a “hangover prevention beverage,” I mean the kind practiced by the souls who know us most completely—our mothers and brothers and wives and kids, familiar with the flimsy layer between our grace and lack of composure. They have the clearest reasons to stick it to us, making their restraint all the more admirable. They might not even mention the baklava.
At this stage of life I do sometimes pray for a kind of big cosmic mercy from the endless string of fear for my children, fear for my parents, the grind of work and sickness, and dying pets. But mercy comes quietly. Mercy tiptoes down the hall from three-year-old Isaac’s room where it’s been coughing all night and whispers, “Everything’s ok. You can sleep for awhile.”
In his poem, “lunch hour,” Michael Spring takes us to a place where mercy and humanity seem unlikely—a strip club operating during lunchtime, the callousness of the scene somehow heightened by the implication of business routine. The stripper’s basic kindness glows through Spring’s beautifully clear delivery.
The speaker of “Menopause as Grace” enjoys the mercy of hormonal departure. Poet Sandra Kolankiewicz acknowledges the sometimes-despotic rule of estrogen with a wicked sense of humor. Her imagery, however, does not suffer from constraint, as she travels from the Norrmalmstorg robbery to the fragility of a flower stem in tightly-packed and interestingly controlled lines of ten syllables.
“Pansy on Six” by G. William Zorn presents a great 1st person voice, that of a self-proclaimed “bad Jew,” dealing with prejudice toward his gayness and the death of his partner. Zorn’s character entertains us and breaks our hearts with his candor. The piece’s late 1970s context heightens the poignancy its protagonist’s situation, and Zorn brings it home with the lovely and haunting image of the electric menorah.
Dane Bahr’s short story, “A Son to a Sister,” examines a father’s turn toward mental illness and his family’s attempt to reconcile the man he was with the murderer he has become. The man’s son and daughter await the mercy of the state and the public, while the son, the narrator of this tough yet delicate piece, shields his sister from the worst of the details. Our heroism toward family and our equal helplessness there lead as themes, while below them the question of familial responsibility looms.
Photo By Alex drennan