Wow, there are 19 days left in December. 19 days left in 2016. The “Me in 2016” memes have been keeping me going- though truthfully, the passage of 2016 to 2017 is merely night into day, a rotation of the earth, nothing more. Hope is important, and so is integrity. Lots of work and struggle ahead.
Have you started thinking about your New Year’s Resolution? I’ve thumbed through the usual: drink more water, go to the gym more, lose weight, eat more vegetables. All good ideas and things to work on, speaking for myself. I see a pattern in the popular resolutions: they all identify a deficit. They all require discipline and motivation. Time and again, I have made resolutions like this, and I can’t remember a year in which I successfully went more than a month in keeping the habit. Something is missing in our resolutions, and that is mercy.
The reason I’ve been thinking about mercy is because I hoard books and two of the books on my nightstand have the word “mercy” in the title. Traveling Mercies, by Ann Lamott, and Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson. I actually had to look up the definition of mercy, and according to google, means something between forgiveness and compassion. When we practice mercy, we actively harness our power to condone those who have harmed, rather than punish them. Action, power. Mercy requires agency, it’s a choice. The way I see it, forgiveness is self-practice primarily. I can forgive someone without their knowledge. I let go of anger and resentment not for the purpose of forgetting, but for the purpose of freeing myself from the suffering. Mercy changes the plan- it’s active compassion in the face of pain. Teasing out these differences, I remember something my writing professor said to us the first day of class: “To be a successful memoir, the narrator (you) must be compassionate toward the younger self.” I thought to myself, “Uh, why? I was the worst back then. I deserved to be thrown in jail and rot.”
And there it was, my New Year’s Resolution: Be Merciful. First and foremost to MYSELF! How can one understand the freedom from resentment, anger, disappointment, failure and actively change behavior toward it when we are not merciful toward our own selves? Pfffft. That’s a rhetorical question, but an important one nonetheless. Maybe mercy is about mindfulness. Everything is about mindfulness. But let me explain.
Thinking back on my 2016, it was a hard year. That’s an understatement: it was an excruciating year for me and so many of my friends, my students, and my colleagues. Some days getting to work on public transportation felt like the final battle in Lord of the Rings. But if I’m really honest with myself and what I accomplished, it was not nothing. I ran two half marathons and made a decision to run a full one. I wrote over 70,000 words for a memoir in progress- it’s no where near done, but I’m not giving up on it. Beginning in June I published an average of a blog post a week on this site and some others. I started therapy, took charge of my health, and spoke up about being a white woman. None of these processes has been perfect- there were days I didn’t run because I wanted to sit on the couch and eat pizza instead. There were days I didn’t write because my mind was uninspired. I gained some weight, skipped some therapy sessions, and missed a SHIT ton of opportunities to speak up about oppression. What does it all mean?
One of my students highly suggested (borderline demanded) that I try Forrest Yoga recently. Truth time: yoga freaks me out. It’s boring and slow and I have to sit with myself and my terrible flexibility for far too long. But I did it, and as our instructor repeated several times, I noticed where the struggle was. My mind really wanted to yell at my stiff body for using a block in pigeon pose. Mercy itself is the block- it’s an act of mindfulness as the world hurls crap at you over and over. it’s acknowledging that imperfection is better than not doing something at all- the end justifies the means. No, wait- the means get messed up sometimes, but you can still get to the end. That’s mercy: finding compassion and changing course. It’s acting on love that has been buried but not extinguished.
I don’t mean to pat myself on the back. That action is extremely dangerous- congratulating ourselves too often lulls us into complacency. The reason I started this blog was to think about how we sustain ourselves as activists when justice fatigue is real. Though I don’t practice in the Pure Land tradition, the Boddhisatva Kannon has always inspired me. She’s known as the Goddess of Mercy, the one who listens when we cry out in suffering. As a Boddhisatva she has embodied the ultimate mercy by forgoing her ultimate attainment to help us out. In the journey rife with suffering mercy is about taking our power we could use to get even with others or ourselves who have caused harm, and instead applying it to change course, focusing on the goal and being mindful that we can still find a way to get there.