Have you ever been in one of those arguments where you get sucked into the back and forth, like a frenzied game of tug-a-war? Except no one is playing, and in fact the whole emotional environment feels weighty and overly serious, like we’re arguing about way more than the dishwasher all of a sudden. Sometimes we can get sucked into this dynamic so often we feel stuck. I find it is really tricky to extricate myself from these tense reactive arguments.
How can we get unstuck?
I’ll humbly submit that if I asked Pope Francis that question, he might turn towards me kindly — and with that tone that says he understands, he’s been there too — he’d offer me one word: Mercy. Mercy, he would say. And then he’d go on to explain in his compelling and compassionate way what he means by that, and how he understands what Christ meant when He said “Blessed are the merciful” (Mat 5:7). While this is perhaps a quaint fantasy of mine, I don’t think it’s too far off the mark. In Misericordiae Vultus, Pope Francis gifts to us many words of wisdom on how mercy is exactly what we need to accentuate in our relationships today.
In MV, Pope Francis talks about Christ’s teaching on mercy in the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son: “In the parables devoted to mercy, Jesus reveals the nature of God as that of a Father who never gives up until he has forgiven the wrong and overcome rejection with compassion and mercy” (paragraph 9). This seems right on the mark. How often is it the perception of being rejected by the other that stirs up our defenses? How often in the face of a wrong, do our me-first survival instincts kick in, and drown out our higher values? And yet, demanding reparation from the other doesn’t often seem to work to inspire anyone to lay down their side of the tug-a-war. You might even say demanding reparation fuels the fire (Unless the other caves before our demands, but even that I think doesn’t feel too good…we seem to know that although the tug-a-war has ended, that fire has just gone dormant, not been resolved).
The force that overcomes everything
So how do we get unstuck? Mercy overcomes rejection. And not mercy demanded, but mercy gifted. One person alone making the effort-ful decision to be merciful makes the difference. Pope Francis continues to say that in those parables on mercy, we discover the core of our faith, because “mercy is presented as a force that overcomes everything, filling the heart with love and bringing consolation through pardon.” I think I could pause and mediate on that phrase quite a while – mercy is the force that overcomes everything. Not brute strength, not strict justice, not even hope, but mercy is the key to getting unstuck, to transforming human relationships, to overcoming all sins, all brokenness, all closed doors and cut off relationships.
This is a mighty task. I don’t think it’s that easy to discipline our reactive natures and gift mercy to others. I have resolved plenty of times to meet another with mercy and forgiveness, only to get sucked back into putting emotional demands and conditions on others with reactions like “but it’s his fault” or “well if she would only…” I think this is an profound lesson and life task. Pope Francis must sense the enormity of this endeavor, for he goes on in the next paragraphs to bring our attention to the story of the master who pardons his servant, yet the servant in return does not pardon his fellow servant.
“Should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (Mt 18:33).
So while you might read that as “We should forgive because we’ve been forgiven,” and that seems a pretty direct reading, I’d like to offer a further thought. It’s almost like “We may forgive, because we’ve been forgiven.” What difference do you experience between the two phrases? For me, the second emphasizes that truly, I am only capable of gifting mercy to others when and in so far as I have allowed myself to receive God’s mercy. That means I can’t conjure up this great gift of mercy by myself – I am too small, too limited, too driven by self-interest, you might say too “miserable.” Misericordae, latin for “mercy”, means the opening of the heart before misery or wretchedness. So, in so far as I humbly recognize my own misery before God, with childlike confidence in His infinite merciful love for me, that’s the measure that His Great Heart will open and pour upon me His grace and pardon – and also the measure of how much my own heart will be open to receiving His grace and pardon, and open to gifting it in turn to others.
Resolving the tug-a-war
If we’re not in touch with our own misery, then in the tug-a-war it’s incredibly easy to throw everything at the other person, or righteously attempt to fix the other as if we had no part in the back and forth, or withdraw in defeat or weariness and simply break ties with that person in a last ditch effort to feel better. But if we are in touch with our own misery, in the healthy way of a child who trusts in their loving Father, then I think it’s all of a sudden possible for God to open our hearts in mercy to the other person. In our willingness to be open and humble with God and ourselves about our own misery, we no longer have to push and pull against ourselves with those well-meant resolutions of severe self-discipline I mentioned earlier. I think that path does work in many ways to help us get unstuck for a little while. But it’s kind of like working twice as hard with less rich results, since our resolve often falters and we end up more frustrated than before.
The way of getting unstuck with the force of mercy seems to me much more profound, like the root of the tug-of-war dissolves, and our self resolutions are bolstered not our by own will, but by the deep bond with God, who is ever ready to let His mercy flow through us when we invite Him in. Can you imagine the powerful force that would move through our nation, if we each walked this path of receiving and giving mercy? Pope Francis puts it this way, “At times how hard it seems to forgive! And yet pardon is the instrument placed into our fragile hands to attain serenity of heart. To let go of anger, wrath, violence, and revenge are necessary conditions to living joyfully.”
In closing, here’s an old fable which deeply illustrates for me what it means to embrace mercy, as the force that overcomes everything:
The North Wind and the Sun
THE WIND and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger. Suddenly they saw a traveller coming down the road, and the Sun said: “I see a way to decide our dispute. Whichever of us can cause that traveller to take off his cloak shall be regarded as the stronger. You begin.” So the Sun retired behind a cloud, and the Wind began to blow as hard as it could upon the traveller. But the harder he blew the more closely did the traveller wrap his cloak round him, till at last the Wind had to give up in despair. Then the Sun came out and shone in all his glory upon the traveller, who soon found it too hot to walk with his cloak on.
“KINDNESS EFFECTS MORE THAN SEVERITY.”
Æsop. (Sixth century B.C.) Fables.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14