I have been on an Anne Lamott kick lately. I’m reading her book on writing, Bird by Bird and I have checked out both Almost Everything and Hallelujah Anyway from the library. I managed to finish Hallelujah Anyway over the course of about 6 weeks of listening to it between sets while working out in the mornings. The book is about mercy, a concept greatly lacking in our modern world, one that if you were to ask the average human “Who is one person you wish you were more merciful with?”, they’d probably think you were deranged. This is unfortunate given its immense power to provide actual freedom, partially to the receiver but more importantly to the giver.
Mercy is defined as “compassion or forbearance shown especially to an offender or to one subject to one’s power.” Lamott’s book is almost entirely about mercy for ourselves even though where that often begins is with mercy with someone who has wronged us. The definition of the term implies a hierarchical relationship between two people as in a king and a subject or a judge and a criminal. In these instances, the ability to give mercy is built into the hierarchical relationship. A judge can show mercy on a criminal in certain circumstances. Perhaps it’s a first offense or a partially justifiable crime or any other situation that might warrant leniency. But the criminal cannot show mercy to the judge, not in the sense we might often interpret the word.
The beauty of Lamott’s book and her insight is that she turns this on its head by pointing out the fact that often when we need to impart mercy to someone in our lives, we have allowed the subject to hold the power over our freedom and our psychological health. We all have stories of people who have deeply hurt us. Many of us cling to these hurts as if they are treasure, building up a wall from them so that we can avoid being hurt again. The irony of this is that the offender often has no real power over us in the sense that a king or a judge has over those before them. We willingly give the offender the power to control our minds by focusing on what they have done to us, letting it fester or grow cancer-like for years. It consumes energy and causes anxiety. We become the slave, the subject, as if we need the mercy. We accept the sin against us as if it were a truth about our actual person.
Lamott shows in the book through her personal experiences with mercy how only by giving mercy to ourselves, often by first forgiving the original slight, can we gain back the wonderful freedom we had before. Instead of allowing the sin or slight against us to define who we are, convincing ourselves we really are dumb or ugly or fat or whatever else someone accused us of, we must show mercy to ourselves. Only then can we stop being the criminal in the transaction and become whole again. When we choose to cling to past hurts, we give up our freedom. The only way to regain that freedom is to forgive.
This is a powerful concept but not one found in wide use in our modern world of constant attacks, polarization, and antagonism framed as debate. The beauty of the concept is that once we become more merciful with ourselves, we become more merciful with the world. We become not weaker, which would be the common conception of someone who is merciful, but more powerful, able to withstand great events of fate that turn against us with grace and happiness. When we hold on to the hurts, we willingly take our freedom and give it away to ghosts that don’t even exist. To regain that freedom, we must be willing to be merciful, first with ourselves and then others.
I struggle with this a great deal. I have Imposter Syndrome about just about everything. I prefer justice, preferably fateful in nature, over mercy any day. Most people do. We have a keen sense of fairness as human beings and when we are hurt, we prefer to have the world make it right by imparting some justice for us. But this so rarely happens. Lamott teaches that it is ok to be an Impostor, that maybe, just maybe, you aren’t if you’d only allow yourself the right to forgive yourself for it all. It’s a battle but one worth jumping into because without it, my freedom is being given to people or things that don’t deserve it.
The book has a great deal more to it about regaining a sense of wonder and curiosity and joy through the power of mercy. It is a tonic for our modern world in many ways and definitely worth the read or listen. Lamott believes strongly in a spiritual, mystic Christianity but there is plenty in the book for people who do not. It’s a fast read and full of Lamott’s usual wit and subtle humor. If you are looking for a way out of the polarization and out of the trap of holding on to things that steal your freedom and joy, it’s a good start.