Showing Mercy is Risky, but that’s Normal

What if this doesn’t work out? What if I make this worse? What if somebody misunderstands my good intentions? What if…

Dogs or horses might second-guess their ability to clear a hurdle or climb a particularly steep slope, but there is no evidence that they deliberate and weigh pros and cons. In fact, they do not seem to undertake projects that would even require it.

And God does not need to worry about something not working out. He is God, after all! God already knows all the answers and knows the future as well as he knows the past.

So facing “what if” questions seems to be a decidedly human issue.

We humans fret, and study, and prepare. We invest time and energy, trying to avoid failure, debt and social embarrassment. And even still, all the deliberating and planning and calculating in the world cannot always save us from making mistakes, or even utterly failing. Despite all of our best intentions, things may not turn out the way we hope.

There are risks attached to being human. ALL of us, in one way or another, face the unknown at various points in our lives.

When others are involved, it gets even more complicated. And if the others are in turmoil or facing some kind of deep and lasting suffering, that’s even more complex.

This is what you learn when you reach out to help someone who is in chronic need: it doesn’t always turn out to be as clear-cut as we would like. In the Gospels, Jesus taught His followers to practice mercy, to forgive and exemplified it with lavish generosity. Those are His clear instructions.

The only thing is, He didn’t offer a guidebook on every situation that might come up. What about when kids are involved, and one of the kids has a disability? What if there is a way to help one member of a family but not all of them? What if a client has a hidden mental illness and they suddenly turn aggressive, after weeks of being a gentle soul. What if you only find out when it is already too late not to get your feelings, or your pride, hurt?

What if those are not “what ifs” but just the reality of the situation?

Suddenly you are right in the middle of a mess. And even though you might set out to try to make things better, you end up by making an even bigger mess. Not on purpose, of course, but it still turns out that way. When things get messy, it’s as if you are trying to see through water that is all churned up with sand and silt and other particles. It is no longer clear and still, but a cloud of dust, where you no longer know up from down, or forward from backward.

There are times when life gets so complicated that there are no clear answers and of all the less-than-perfect options available your only choice is to pick one. This is a heavy responsibility and for people of good will, who are trying to do the best they can, it is sometimes hard to know what to do.

The Pope recently preached a homily about how being merciful toward others means a) sharing in their pain and b) taking risks for them. His point was that it is not romantic to be engaged in the works of mercy; it is sad and painful and dangerous.

Those who want clarity and clear-cut answers and an easy ride might as well just stay home and sit on the couch.

Here is an illustration: It’s like standing on the dry shoreline and making up a list of all the reasons why your friend should not have lost their favorite necklace or bracelet in the ocean. (They should have taken it off before going swimming, they should never have brought valuables to the beach in the first place, etc.) But none of that will help your friend locate their lost item. Only by wading into the water and looking around, trying to feel your way through the murky water and join in the search, will you be of any use to them in their real purpose, which is to recover their lost jewelry.

Everything is easy and clear as can be for a bystander who refuses to get involved, and no one needs a beach chair philosopher.

So when you choose to get involved and then enter into the lives of others, and especially when they are hurting, you are agreeing to a) hurt with them, and b) sacrifice the perspective of distance. You are no longer an objective observer, but embedded with others, and taking on your share of their “blindness,” and agreeing to share in whatever difficulties they carry.

The Pope, again: “Works of mercy are not a way of easing one’s conscience but are acts of suffering with those who suffer.” This is the guidebook that Jesus wrote with His life: jump in and get wet and muddy. Be misunderstood. Be betrayed. Even be willing to die if you are called to, as He was.

But remember: God is more merciful than we could ever be, so we throw ourselves first on Divine Mercy and ask for His help to redeem even our biggest messes.

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