Consider Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, whose trailblazing service in the Civil War earned her the nickname “Angel of the Battlefield.” In the carnage of that conflict, she saw her countrymen needlessly dying on the battlefield, and she fought to bring mercy. She battled back many bureaucratic obstacles to minister as a nurse on the scene. She then went on to found the American Red Cross, the agency that serves victims of natural disasters and humanitarian crises.
Or think about Barton’s contemporary, Henry Bergh, whose patrician upbringing freed him from the need to earn a living through his work. In his fifties, Bergh was so moved by the plight of cruelly treated animals (and most animals were cruelly treated in the mid-nineteenth century; read the eye-opening book and see how) that he urged new laws to prevent such abuse, filed more than twelve-thousand unpopular court cases, and founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to carry on his life’s work of “humane” treatment for animals. Bergh was an infamous showman (he might spring from a perch on a roof into a ring of fighting cocks or dogs to make his point), but he made mercy his lodestar and moved the needle.
Or look at another late nineteenth great: Jane Addams, who put her full energies and intellect into the formation of Hull House, a community center to assist and educate Chicago’s impoverished immigrant community. The classes she offered there (in domestic arts, the trades, and English) allowed many newly arrived immigrants to find solid footing in their new home, and provided a model nationwide.
Mercy differs from compassion and is harder. It is compassion extended to an enemy, a wrong-doer, those to whom we have no “obligation,” and those in our power. Our Core Virtues mercy poster features voracious cheetahs letting a trapped baby wildebeest live. It looks like the lady cheetahs are saying: “Where’s your mother, honey?” Mercy, in other words, is completely counter-intuitive.
Modern day heroes of mercy? Consider St. Louis-based Charles Clark and Morris Shenker. In 1959 Jesuit priest, Father Charles “Dismas” Clark sought a way to help ex-cons start a productive life that would prevent them from returning to jail. He knew that housing was a major difficulty for many newly released offenders: those who had no place to stay often returned to crime on the streets. With the assistance of Jewish criminal lawyer and financier, Morrie Shenker, he founded Dismas House in St. Louis, the first half-way house for ex-offenders. It offered not just shelter, but meals, vocational training and counseling for residents. It became the inspiration for the 1961 film The Hoodlum Priest, and today there are hundreds of Dismas Houses throughout the United States. (Dismas was the Good Thief in the story of the Crucifixion.)
Do we want children to show mercy? Of course. Children are often fruitfully charged with the task of feeding or cleaning up after the family/classroom pet or caring for a baby sister or brother. Such responsibilities promote concern for those less capable than themselves, and may prompt them to show mercy in their own way, for example, donating some of their hard-earned savings to a good cause. But in schools, we should not give children the impression that mercy might mean compassionately tolerating someone who abuses or hurts them. That’s not mercy. That’s criminal negligence.
How do we mere mortal grown-ups show mercy on a daily basis? Who’s in our power? Consider not just our spouses, co-workers, children and pets, but the telemarketer who phones at the dinner hour. Or the store clerk, who really had no part in the faulty item we purchased at an inflated price. Or the clueless driver ahead of me, still paused at the traffic light that turned green thirty seconds ago. How we react—is a measure of our mercy.
And it’s not easy. Mercy may fall upon the recipient as a “gentle rain from Heaven,” but the one who extends it must cultivate hard won-traits of self-control, openness to others, and as we see in the biographies featured this month, sometimes courage. It’s not about “always being nice” and “always giving” to those in need. It’s about actually meeting needs, and helping supposed enemies, wrongdoers, and “those in our power” to ultimately flourish.
What about those who demonstrate moral courage—who endure scorn, insult, imprisonment, and even loss of life in defense of an ideal or a principle? Are they, as Twain believed, fewer in number than the physically courageous? Maybe. But perhaps we simply don’t recognize those heroes at the time of their great principled actions.
As President, George Washington, strove mightily to keep the young United States out of European wars, and for that was guillotined in effigy three times daily on Philadelphia’s Market Street (1793) and was derided in the press as a “monocrat” and “old splinter-mouth.” When that “Black Republican” Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, stocks plummeted, enlistments in the Union Army dropped, and Lincoln himself was eventually assassinated. When Jane Addams opened her Chicago-based settlement home for immigrants, she was regarded with suspicion, and dubbed a socialist and anarchist. In 1872, when Susan B. Anthony attempted to vote in her hometown of Rochester, New York, she was arrested, put on trial, and accused of attempting to destroy the institution of marriage. When Martin Luther King Jr. led a non-violent revolution for civil rights, he was rewarded with imprisonment, an FBI investigation and ultimately an assassin’s bullet. When Nelson Mandela embarked on his campaign of resistance to apartheid, he too was arrested and spent twenty-seven years in prison before emerging as South Africa’s first black head of state. You get the picture.
We admire all of those individuals for their moral courage in retrospect. Time has sharpened our lens. We admire them for their willingness to buck the status quo, endure contempt, and risk their lives, for the greater good of peace, civil rights, human dignity, and/or justice. But nobility is not necessarily evident at the time. There are no Olympics of moral courage with clear winners and losers. There are only those who dig deep within themselves and summon the courage to make unpopular choices in defense of the good and for the common good. Frequently at a high cost, often involving loss of stature and danger to themselves.
Men and women of moral courage, unsung heroes, are still in our midst and frequently derided for their obstinacy. In 1996, seven Trappist monks were captured and beheaded by Islamic extremists in Algeria’s civil war. Many could not understand why the little monastic community hadn’t abandoned their home months before. For decades, the French monks had lived peacefully with the Muslim-majority population, pursuing a ministry of medical assistance and solidarity with the local population. But as the forces of terror grew, so did the danger. They were foreigners, outsiders, and Christians. They had been warned. They should get out, the Algerian government insisted. Their decision to stay, serve the community, and witness to the power of faith and love was an act of extraordinary moral courage, chronicled by the 2010 film, Of Gods and Men. (Read more on this story here.)
“If there is anything that links the human to the divine,” Abraham Lincoln wrote, “it is the courage to stand by a principle when everybody else rejects it.” Or as another wartime American hero, Admiral Chester Nimitz noted, “God grant me the courage not to give up what I think is right, even though I think it is hopeless.”
Gratitude, psychologists tell us, is good for us. In the last twenty years, study after study has confirmed that people “who live a life of pervasive thankfulness” (those inclined to count their blessings and see life as a gift, according to Dr. Robert Emmons) reap undeniable mental health benefits. They have a lower incidence of depression, higher satisfaction with life, higher levels of happiness and well-being. The Grateful Living also have better immune systems, physical health, and longer life expectancy. Psychologist Robert Emmon’s pathbreaking work on this topic explores not just that theme, but also the fortuitous effects of gratitude on community. Grateful people, he finds, are more likely to be altruistic, service-oriented people, who cheerfully give back to the community because they see themselves as fortunate and their lives (regardless of material condition) as abundant. Gratitude truly is, as Cicero observed, the parent of all virtues.
So, it turns out that our national tradition of reserving the fourth Thursday of every November for Thanksgiving is a cutting-edge idea. This year’s annual feast of gratitude comes at a time when many in our land are not feeling particularly thankful. We seem to be focused on the slimy road we’re walking and the boulders that may trip us up. And there are boulders. We’re not at a summit, where we can look back, see the big picture, and pronounce it good.
But that inability—to see the abundance and beauty, and not just the muck at our feet—is partly of our own making. One thing that makes human beings different from other mammals is historical memory. We have the ability not simply to recall the past, but to make sense of it, gauging where we are relative to where we have been. In this modern era, we don’t do that often enough; we tend to focus on the short-term issues. But if we do a big picture look-back, we human beings have come a long way, baby, in a short period of time.
What do we have to be grateful for this November 2018?
It’s true that these indices of global prosperity, health, and education, are “just” material realities, rather than indicators of political or moral development. But these are objective, hard-won triumphs, and we have a lot to be thankful for. The world is (in very many ways) in a much better place now than it was as late as 1990. And the United States- a nation of problem-solvers, innovators, and trail-blazers in technology and medicine-has had a lot to do with that.
So, this Thanksgiving, while we walk the rocky road ahead of us and pray for a better foothold, let’s stop for a minute, remember that we have been in darker places, and count our blessings. Buen Camino!
Mary Beth Klee
Highlighting our September virtue of Respect, a dramatic reading of Peppe The Lamplighter.
Human history does not always prove the efficacy of human striving. We sail in strong currents, and sometimes our vessels (large and small) are swamped by rogue waves. One thinks of the Plague, the Holocaust, or 9-11. But we are not without ballast and rudders. We struggle to right ourselves, and we move forward. This month the Core Virtues program celebrates men and women who were bold enough to brave monster waves and high winds, take the hits, and pilot us to better ports. These are lives to learn from.
“To wonder is to marvel at mystery, to stand in awe before the unexplained.”
“Wonder is the first step on the path to knowledge."
Bas-relief on the ocean floor. The sculpted medallion lay eighty feet below sea level and was more than six feet in diameter. Mathematically precise ridges and grooves formed a sandy floral masterpiece in concentric circles, an underwater dahlia festooned with shells. When deep-sea diver and photographer Yoji Ookata first spied this work of art on the ocean floor in the 2012, he was awe-struck. Some suspected aliens. How else could it have been made? And then of course, with ocean currents and swells, the glory was eventually unmade – vanishing like a Buddhist sand mandala and apparently without purpose.
Wow. “I wonder….” Who? What? How? To what end?
Seventy-year-old Yoji Ookata, a Japanese photographer who has spent the last fifty years scuba diving and documenting his discoveries in the East China Sea, wasn’t prepared to cede the ground to extra-terrestrials. He rallied colleagues and a camera crew to better understand what he dubbed “the mystery circle.” His diligence and discovery only increase our awe and wonder at the world in which we live, the glorious complexity of nature, and our appreciation for the wonders we have yet to understand. Scientists say only 5% of the ocean floor has been mapped – yet this marvel has been unearthed. What will we find next, if we are sufficiently open to wonder?
Watch this You Tube link, featuring a BBC Planet Earth clip. Prepare to marvel at a five-inch critter, who is one of nature’s greatest artists and most dedicated suitors.
Wonder is to stop and say “Wow.”