“The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven…” Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice
That’s true: the quality of mercy is not strained, and droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven. It always feels that way to the recipient of mercy, anyway. We perceive mercy as an unmerited gift from above, and we tend to see the heroically merciful (Buddha, Jesus, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa) as superhuman: mild, meek, beyond anger, and detached from the things of this world. Maybe that’s the reason “mercy” is so hard to cultivate. We know we should be merciful, but who actually wants to be meek and mild, passionless and detached?
Yet the heroes/heroines we feature this month—those who showed compassion to the wrongdoer or the weak—are anything but mild, aloof and remote individuals. They are technicolor human beings with passions, energetically engaged in the world, and specifically engaged in service to those in need.
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.