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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