[My first draft of this post was about 20 pages long. I condensed it to two by adapting a short version from the preface to a poetry manuscript that I just finished for grad school. Consider this post a very basic introduction to Social Mercy. I'm writing on an e-book that expands the concept, and a program that includes practical life integration. To be notified about updates, join my email list.]
For that last two years I have been on an alchemical, poetic journey, which was so life-affirming and also, I must admit, life challenging. The Great Work is not for the faint of heart. The reality of transmuting the poison of life into art, means that one has poison lying around. Several times during the writing of Handshaking Instructions I thought I might be going mad. Looking back now, I see that I was, and I’m grateful that I had the opportunity. For one cannot choose to descend into madness, one can only live one’s life, and hope they are so lucky as to slip on a banana peel.
What madness gave me would be unjust to sum up in a sentence. So here’s the lead up on it. Ana Unalov defines madness simply as an attempt to express unbearable pain. But first, madness begins with surprise or shock, when our guiding meaning or “ruling principle” as Jung calls it, crumbles. Losing the meaning we live in, personally or socially, could be triggered by a number of possible things—the failure of precautions, a mass shooting, loss of faith in industry or government, loss of belief in the stability of nature or of health, personal or collective tragedy (Unalov 7-24).
This breakup of reliable patterns causes disorientation, fear, and enormous pain. For many, the instinct is to look for the person or persons to blame. We tend to deposit the evil outside of ourselves and try to kill it there, in our neighbor, in another group or religion or country. Who is responsible for the world going to rot? Some blame the white supremacists, the president, the oil and gas industry, drugs, young people, organized religion, etc. We recruit others to our cause and if they will not, they must be part of the evil.
I saw this in graduate school on some of the social justice panels, and it drove me crazy. I could see the flaw in thinking but hadn’t yet confronted my own flawed thinking. But that was just a matter of time. For those committed to a journey of consciousness, madness can become a terrifying and enlightening look at one’s own incapacity. It is terrifying because one must realize they are complicit in all the evils they abhor.
For me this looked like 18 months of stewing over other people’s flawed thinking and trying to write a poem or an essay titled “Social Mercy.” I said it was about Christ Consciousness, but its core was a reaction to the people I felt were wrong. The piece never came together, until one day I realized that I was engaged in the exact same thinking: that someone else’s behavior was the problem.
I didn’t need to write about social mercy, I needed to become social mercy. This meant I first had to accept my own lack of capacity—to love as Christ did, among other things. Only by giving all parts of me a seat at the table and honoring them as they were, was I able to allow them to transform. I mention this in two sentences, but this came only after a dark night of the soul. The follow up is that I can now accept the same lack of capacity in others with compassion rather than judgment. But of course, this work is ongoing. It takes daily forgiving, which is one aspect of mercy.
In her book Love Without End, Glenda Green quotes Jesus:
“Practice forgiveness every day. It liberates the soul from bondage, and beyond that, forgiveness is an action which your mind can never understand. Your mind’s sole intent is to balance the books. In issues of morality it only wants to get even. Therefore, practice forgiveness everyday if only in trivial matters. This is an excellent way of tempering the mind and empowering the heart.” (Green 208)
But forgiveness is only one part of mercy. Justice requires debts be paid, and so mercy also is the capacity to pay the debt for another. When the debt is not quantifiable, like unkindness, abuse, or fatherlessness—the capacity needed is also difficult to quantify. A good place to start, however, is by increasing ones capacity in consciousness, kindness, deep listening, and seeing and then un-seeing another’s faults.
“Social Mercy” did not become a poem. It became my soul’s ambition, which may not mend everything ruptured in the world, but maybe social mercy plus good art and poetry can. In the non-magical world, big problems require big solutions and not surprisingly, create other big problems. What I learned from alchemy is that you are thinking magically when you are thinking small. What is the smallest possible action I can take that will have an impact? Sometimes pulling a single thread can unravel an entire web. The trick is knowing which thread. For me, one powerful action is writing and reading and sharing poetry. Though poems themselves don’t resolve life’s uncertainties, they can serve as a necessary reminder that we are not alone. They can translate some of the chaos into beauty and meaning, can help us see our humanity and live alongside each other. When I am writing my poem, I am doing no harm in the world. When I share one I love, I know it can transform people. Sometimes for a day, and sometimes a line can echo through years, like the repeating line in Adam Zagajewski's "Try to Praise the Mutilated World."
That's all I will share for now. I look forward to putting all my thoughts and tools for integration into one place to share soon. Start with forgiving--yourself first if needed. And please forgive me for any imperfections in this writing and in myself as I attempt to live what I write and "fail a little better" each day.
I love you.
Translated by Clare Cavanaugh