Friday, November 19, 2010

The Quality of Mercy

In middle school, I got teased mercilessly. Not only was I a fat girl, I was a fat girl who'd had the audacity to tell a boy that I liked him. I mostly tried to ignore the venom that David and his friends sent my way. I almost grew used to the mooing in the halls, being called a sphere, and allusions to my special gravitational field. Such creative cruelty was one of the down sides of having a lot of smart peers.

There was one lunch period, though, that was just too much. That day, David went past viciousness into pure hatred. I remember being stunned, and knowing that however much I believed in my unworthiness, this was beyond anything I deserved.

At our lockers before our next class, I turned to him and said, "Oh, by the way..." SLAP! and walked away without looking back. It's the only time I've ever hit someone in anger.

We were called into the principal's office — something that had never happened to me before. I wasn't sure how I felt about the red mark on David's cheek, but I think I was a little surprised and a little impressed with myself. Still, I was nervous because I had no idea what to expect.

Fortunately, the principal knew me well enough to know that I had to have been pushed hard to do what I'd done. In fact, Mr. Rennie held both of us responsible for what had transpired because he understood that my punishment had preceded my crime.

The consequences of hitting David could've been quite serious. But I didn't even get detention because Mr. Rennie knew there was no chance I'd do something like that again. His understanding that day kept a terrible situation from being compounded.

I'm a Shakespeare nerd, so any discussion of mercy automatically makes me think of a well-known speech from The Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings.
But mercy is above this sceptered sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute of God himself;
And earthly power doth then show like God's
When mercy seasons justice.

The opening lines are the most famous, but the final lines point the way for us as people of faith, whether or not we believe in god.

Several years ago, I wrote a piece in the form of an open letter to David that I'd hoped to publish somewhere. I talked about unlearning his lesson that there's nothing more hateful than being loved by the fat girl, and how I'd come to see that my love is a gift. The piece was filled with sadness and righteous anger and transformation and empowerment. It was powerful writing, with a potentially life-saving message for other women.

And then one day, a funny thing happened: I got an email from him. There are few things in this life that could have shocked me more. He told me about living in our hometown again after years of globetrotting, caught me up on his family, and passed along some sad news about a beloved English teacher — news that he'd heard, ironically enough, through Mr. Rennie.

His note was lovely, and reminded me of the friendship that had prompted my crush in the first place.

All of a sudden, just like that, I wasn't angry any more. I'd needed the anger to help regain my self-respect, but it could only carry me so far. I can look back now with compassion for both of us, because I wonder what spiritual price he might have paid for his cruelty back then. Perhaps he has suffered, too, though I'd take no joy in it.

I don't want to measure my life by the scores that have been evened, or define people by the wrongs they've inflicted. Justice might ask me to publish that open letter, but mercy just isn't having it. I'd much rather remember the other lessons I learned from David: that boldness makes me immune to regret. That I know how to be content in my own company. And that I'm a person who values living from my heart more than I fear being wounded.

I wrote and delivered this piece as the Credo for the November 14, 2010, service at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco.

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Come, Whoever You Are

Come, come, whoever you are
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving
Ours is no caravan of despair
Come yet again, come

I've loved that song since the first time I heard it. I love its wide embrace. I love that despair isn't allowed center stage. I love that a 20th-century American took the words of a 13th-century Persian Sufi and set them to music that speaks to me, a shamanic Unitarian Universalist. I love that a line of the poem that the composer left out – "Even if you have broken your vow a hundred times" – only makes it more radically welcoming.

There's something in particular about the phrase "lover of leaving" that I find heartbreaking and beautiful. Who are these people who feel the need to leave, not just once but over and over? And do they actually enjoy leaving, or are they driven to it?

I tend to be a lover of staying. I've only had about nine home addresses in my entire life, and that includes my year as an exchange student and a month-long sublet when I first moved to San Francisco. I'm a fiercely loyal friend, though more than once I've remained committed to a friendship long after it would have been healthier to let it go. I much prefer vacations where I can get to know one place for a solid amount of time rather than alighting briefly in one city before moving on to the next.

Wandering? I'm a big fan of meandering my way through neighborhoods.
Worshiping Well, I'm up on a chancel, so it must hold some attraction.
But leaving...time and again, by necessity or inclination...that holds sadness.

Many of us in this room have had to do a lot of leaving, by inclination or necessity. Jobs, relationships, schools, apartments, religions, our bodies, our families, our dignity. Even when leaving is the sane choice, even when it's done of our own free will, even when it's connected to a joyous occasion like a graduation, leaving marks us. We're riddled with exit wounds.

The question then becomes, What will fill the spaces thus created? One way to make sure that no caravan of despair rushes in is to fill the space with community.

A day or two after September 11, Emily and I came to a special service here. We weren't members then, but we instinctively wanted to gather with others as we tried to comprehend what had happened. I don't remember what was said, and even the emotions seem muted. But I remember a sense of relaxing, just a bit, because we didn't have to carry the burden alone.

I also know we came here, specifically, because we knew the people sitting nearby wouldn't limit their connectedness and compassion to the people in the twin towers and Pentagon, or the airline passengers, or emergency workers, or New York City, or the United States. The difficult truth of that day is that it reflected years of tragedies played out all over the world.

The awareness of how we're connected to those beyond our immediate circle is why I keep coming to this church – because no one's humanity is worth less than someone else's. Even those whose actions we condemn, whose policies we abhor, are fundamentally worthy of love. The way I see it, the people whose wounds make them strike out most viciously are the ones most in need of love, even if I can't always be the one to muster it for them.

On the way into the church this morning, I passed members of the Faithful Fools and others gathered to bear witness to the humanity of those living on the streets – the people who would be most directly affected by a law to limit their right to take up space in public. Their silent presence on our steps reminds us that when Unitarian Universalists gather and invite others to join us – whoever they are – we're also bearing witness to our own humanity. Even when we're imperfect, even when we've broken our vows a hundred times, still the invitation remains: Come yet again, come.

I wrote and delivered this piece as the Credo for the October 17, 2010, service at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco.

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